A House of good repute

Even the coming of hypersonic transportation had not done much to change the status of New Zealand; to most people it was merely the last stop before the South Pole. The great majority of New Zealanders were quite content to keep it that way.

Evelyn Merrick was one of the exceptions, and had defected at the (in her case, very) ripe age of seventeen to find her destiny elsewhere. After three marriages which had left her emotionally scarred but financially secure, she had discovered her role in life, and was as happy as anyone could reasonably expect to be.

Penshurst Place in Kent

The Villa, as it was known to her wide-ranging clientele, was on a beautiful estate in one of the still unspoiled parts of Kent, conveniently close to Gatwick Airport. Its previous owner had been a celebrated media tycoon, who had placed his bet on the wrong system when high-definition TV swept all before it at the end of the twentieth century. Later attempts to restore his fortune had misfired, and he was now a guest of His Majesty's government for the next five years (assuming time off for good behavior).

Being a man of high moral standards, he was quite indignant about the use which Dame Eva had now made of his property, and had even attempted to dislodge her. However, Eva's lawyers were just as good as his; perhaps better, since she was still at liberty, and had every intention of remaining so.

The Villa was run with meticulous propriety, the girls' passports, tax returns, health and pension contributions, medical records, and so forth being instantly available to any government inspector - of whom, Dame Eva sometimes remarked sourly, there always seemed to be a copious supply. If any ever came in the hope of personal gratification, they were sadly disappointed.

On the whole, it was a rewarding career, full of emotional and intellectual stimulus. She certainly had no ethical problems, having long ago decided that anything enjoyed by adults of voting age was perfectly acceptable, as long as it was not dangerous, unhygienic, or fattening. Her main cause of complaint was that involvement with clients caused a high rate of staff turnover, with resulting heavy expenditure on wedding presents. She had also observed that Villa-inspired marriages appeared to last longer than those with more conventional origins, and intended to publish a statistical survey when she was quite sure of her data; at the moment the correlation coefficient was still below the level of significance.

As might be expected in her profession, Evelyn Merrick was a woman of many secrets, mostly other peoples'; but she also had one of her own which she guarded with special care. Though nothing could have been more respectable, if it came out it might be bad for trade. For the last two years, she had been employing her extensive - perhaps unique - knowledge of paraphilia to complete her doctor's degree in psychology at the University of Auckland.

She had never met Professor Hinton, except over video circuits - and even that very rarely, since both preferred the digital impersonality of computer file exchanges. One day - perhaps a decade after she had retired - her thesis would be published, though not under her own name, and with all the case histories disguised beyond identification. Not even Professor Hinton knew the individuals involved, though he had made some shrewd guesses at a few.

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