It was nearing the end of another mild winter. The skies were rippled gray silk, streaks of sunlight shining through only in the middle of the day, peeking out and then rushing to set again. No snow, and very little frost, but that particular kind of city climate that settles over the coast for a season and lifts so gradually that the spring seems to arrive almost by surprise.
The row of brownstones was lit with the scattered bands of light from street lamps shining through twisted, barren tree branches, a spooky but oddly pleasant effect. Michael stepped out of the cab and shivered slightly. He had checked his letter of instructions in the car as they drove down the Grand Central Parkway from the airport that bore his name. He had smiled when he received the ticket just a few weeks ago. Now, as he took a deep breath and checked the address again, his smile broadened.
He heard the cab driver hauling bags out of the trunk, but walked up the five steps to the glass-paneled front door and rang the bell. It took a few moments for him to hear responding footsteps inside, and he was half turning to the cabby to tell him to bring the bags closer to the door when the sound of a lock being undone interrupted him. He took a quick glance and snapped his fingers.
“Hey, took you long enough,” he said. “I’m LaGuardia, Anderson is expecting me.” Michael waved absently over one shoulder to indicate the tasks which awaited on the pavement and pushed past the undersized fellow who had opened the door.
At last! Stepping through a small hallway, he turned to the left and found a perfect urban oasis, a warm, comfortable sitting room with a large bay window and a heavy fireplace, now dark. Muted colors met his gaze, dark woods and shadowed burgundy, indirect light from other rooms flowing across an ancient, ornate carpet. Soft music was playing in the background—Vivaldi, also perfect—and the wide doorway through the sitting room led to a formal dining room. Very classy. Just like he imagined.
Like magic, as soon as he was in the room, another slave appeared; this one a charming little bundle, her russet hair drawn up into a bun, dressed in a formal maid’s uniform with a pristine apron tied around her. She was round and plump, with heavy breasts and a rosy cheeked face; definitely not what he was used to, although she did have a beautiful smile. She curtsied at once, a very nice one indeed, understated yet satisfyingly obvious at the same time. He recalled that the twit on door duty didn’t make a similar gesture, and reminded himself to make sure that Anderson found out.
“I’m Michael LaGuardia, is Ms. Anderson available?”
“Yes, Mr. LaGuardia, I’ll fetch her at once. May I take your coat?” She was poised on the balls of her feet, ready to approach him or take off to fetch her mistress, yet displaying no hint of expectation. Her voice showed strong traces of a British accent. Michael sighed in pleasure; this was going to be fantastic! He started to shrug the raincoat off, and she caught it from his shoulders with a touch so light he thought it had grown wings and lifted of its own accord.
She swept it away, and left the room quietly, and Michael stretched out and looked around. From the door, he could hear the cabby thanking the doorman; at least he knew how to tip. Michael’s luggage was poking inside the sitting room entranceway now, and as the doorman stepped back to close the door, Michael raised his voice.
“You can take those things to my room.” There was no response, and Michael started to move forward to give the guy a good smack. Establish dominance and authority early, that was the key! But he stopped himself, and held still. Maybe the doorman was under instructions not to speak? It would probably be inappropriate to start off his training by hitting a slave who didn’t really deserve it. Just as he decided to ignore him, the doorman stepped into view and casually leaned against the inside of the entranceway. He examined Michael with a look of studious curiosity.
This was not silence. It was sheer insolence.
“I don’t know if you understood who I am,” Michael said, rubbing his right knuckles. “I’m the new trainer here.”
“Are you?” He adjusted the steel-rimmed glasses on his nose and examined Michael again. “Oh, I beg your pardon, sir.” And he straightened his posture a little bit, smoothing down the suit jacket and tightening the tie.
Oh, he’s itching for a beating, Michael thought, controlling a grin. Man, he’s aching to be taken down.
“I’m not that easy to provoke—boy,” Michael stated firmly. No sense in letting the squirt get an upper hand, no way.
“That’s quite a relief, sir. Since that is the case, you may carry your own damn bags upstairs.” One small hand pointed to the staircase, and the man actually started to walk into the room, intending to pass Michael on his right.
There was a second or three when Michael wondered if he had heard right—surely no one would speak to him that way in Anderson’s house! But as his hand shot up instinctively, Michael got the second major surprise of his evening. For the smaller man moved quickly, and even as Michael’s arm swung in an arc meant to deliver a classic disciplinary slap, one arm moved up to intercept it. Michael felt his wrist hitting what seemed to be a steel post, followed by the disorienting sensation of being pushed back a step.
His mouth dropped open in astonishment even as he lost his balance and fell backward, awkwardly, into a large wingbacked chair.
“So, this is our new pupil,” came a woman’s voice from the direction of the dining room.
Michael turned his head and saw the mistress of the house and staggered to his feet. Blood rushed to and then from his face. He opened his mouth once to catch a breath and tried to gather himself. “Anderson—I’m—”
“Michael LaGuardia, I know. What I don’t know is why you would possibly have the temerity to strike someone in my house without my permission.”
She was tall, as oddly tall as her doorman was short. She was no longer a young woman, silver streaks running through her almost waist-length black hair, all bound behind her at the nape of her long neck. Standing in the doorway, she seemed all angles and lines, a hard, horsy woman who would have looked natural in the dusty plains of Kansas or in the hills of Arizona. Her voice was low and hoarse, her rhythm of words strong and direct, with the slightest of twangs.
She was everything he had imagined she was—except maybe a little bit older. Well, a lot older. She looked at least fifty-five. He swallowed and gave her a terse acknowledging nod with what he judged to be the proper deference.
“I beg your pardon, Ms. Anderson. I thought your boy here was challenging me.”
“Really?” She turned slightly to look at the doorman, who was busy straightening the sleeve of his jacket. Michael didn’t catch any meaning in the looks they traded, and started to feel very, very wary.
“Well.” It was a statement, a verbal comma that came out as though she were summing up possible options of discourse. “This is not a very auspicious way to make an entrance, Mr. LaGuardia. Maybe I’d better make an introduction. Michael LaGuardia, trainer in training, please meet Mr. Chris Parker, my friend and house guest. And, in case you didn’t know, a trainer who’s been around the block a little longer than you. He definitely has seniority over you.”
Michael looked at the man facing him, really looked this time, and felt a sudden need to sit down again. What an absolutely stunning way to make an entrance indeed.
“Ah, Mr. Parker,” he searched for some kind of proper words to try to salvage this situation as best as he could. “I—I’ve made a terrible mistake. I’m so sorry if you took offense at what I did.”
One glance at the hard look in Parker’s eyes and the faint sound of a “tsk” coming from Anderson completed Michael’s sensations of social vertigo. What did I do wrong now? he thought miserably.
“Maybe I’d better go out and come in again,” he offered weakly.
“Only slaves get to do over mistakes in my house,” Anderson said firmly. “You’ll just have to work harder, that’s all. And just so you know, no one raises a hand—or any other part of the body—to any one else in this house without permission from me. Is that understood?”
“Then take your bags upstairs. Joan will show you the way. Parker and I are about to go over your records. After you freshen up, you may join us in my office.” With that, she turned and walked back through the doorway, and Parker followed her. The maid stood by his bags, waiting to show him upstairs. The slightest of drafts curled around his shoulders and he shivered way out of proportion to it. This was bad, very bad. He hadn’t counted on there being two trainers in residence. He hadn’t counted on there being other free people around, period. And he had never made such a spectacularly bad entrance in his entire life.
I’ll just have to get better, he swore, gathering himself. He turned to Joan and picked up his bags to follow her.
* * * *