The Fourth of July arrived so quickly that James Kelly could hardly believe he was actually on his way to Mark Benson's house that Saturday evening, as the taxi ground its way through the busy streets of North London.Had he not met Sharon when he did his chances of acquiring the costume in which he was now somewhat shamefacedly attired would have been extremely remote.But thanks to her theatrical connections she had secured him access to this costume free-of-charge, and solely on the condition that he didn't damage it or allow anyone else to steal it from him.

†††† Although there was little about this particular costume to suggest that he represented a necessarily infamous personage, its eighteenth-century design, in particular the black tail-coat and white breeches, suggested the likelihood of some fictional character - the character, in his case, being none other than Mephistopheles.With a wig of curly-red hair and two small plastic cream-coloured horns protruding from it in the vicinity of his temples, Kelly felt confident that his choice of role would meet with general approval and secure him the confidence of his fellow 'rogues'.In his tail-coat pocket he had secreted the small black eye mask that he intended to wear only when the taxi arrived at its destination.In the meantime, he didn't want to draw undue attention to himself from people in the street, though, God knows, he looked silly enough as it was!

†††† As for Sharon, he was slightly upset that she hadn't been able to come to the fancy-dress ball with him, since he felt confident that her presence would have met with considerable approval, especially from other males.But if she had to act on Saturday evenings, then there was nothing he could do about it.He had promised, anyway, to tell her all about the event afterwards.

†††† Arriving at Mr Benson's address he hastily put on his eye mask, paid the cabby, who seemed not to find anything particularly amusing or eccentric about his appearance at this juncture, and hurried across the driveway to the front door of the large detached house.There was a good deal of noise coming from behind it, which Kelly gratefully noted as he self-consciously rang the bell.Almost immediately, the door was answered and a figure wearing a white eye mask and dressed in what he supposed to be an angel's costume, with golden paper halo, large golden cardboard wings protruding from behind, and a long white gown, beamed a welcoming smile at him from the other side.

†††† "May I have the pleasure of knowing who you are, sir?" the 'angel' requested.

†††† Kelly held out his invitation card to her and, not without a degree of ironic amusement, announced his role-name.

†††† "Welcome Mephistopheles!" cried the 'angel', taking his card and ushering him into the hall.Then turning to the guests already assembled there, she in turn announced his adopted name and, grasping hold of his hand, led him in the direction of a lively living room which contained, in addition to numerous guests, a long table crammed with refreshments.There was sporadic applause as he made his entry, and one or two people clapped him on the back.The 'angel', having ascertained what he would like to drink, duly poured him a glass of red wine and informed him that all but a few of the rooms in the house were open to his curiosity, since it was both impossible and undesirable to fit all the many guests solely into the downstairs ones.

†††† "You wouldn't happen to be Mrs Benson, by any chance?" asked Kelly as he received his glass.

†††† "I oughtn't really to tell you that," the 'angel' replied, taking him by the arm."But if you promise to keep it a secret...." She smiled and faintly nodded her head."Sylvia actually," she added with a playful wink.But before he could ask anything else, she had excused herself on the pretext of door duty, leaving him to fend for himself.

†††† Feeling a bit bashfully self-conscious in the living room, where at that moment he appeared to be the only one with anything approximating to a diabolical appearance, Kelly wandered out into the spacious entrance hall in Sylvia's wake and was just in time to see another guest being announced to those still assembled there as "Count Dracula!"The newcomer wore a long black cape over matching trousers and had the temerity to acknowledge her announcement with a display of counterfeit fangs, which hugely impressed everyone.His face, coated in a white powdery substance, assumed an expression of calculated repugnance when the 'angel' boldly offered him her neck to kiss.To everyone's surprise he kissed her hand instead, commenting that he only nourished himself on other people's blood in private, when they were least expecting it.The voice wasn't one with which Kelly was familiar.

†††† Farther along, in a large room the other side of the hall, he encountered a number of masked people standing round a snooker table where, it appeared, a game of snooker had just come to a conclusive end.The winner, dressed in Nazi uniform, was being congratulated by several onlookers, among whom was a figure garbed in a cowboy outfit, with a black kerchief covering his nose and mouth, who patted him on the back.The loser, standing dejectedly with cue in hand at the other end of the table, sported a high conical hat and long white beard, which gave him the distinct appearance of a necromancer.A woman dressed in what looked like nineteenth-century nurse's uniform was knowledgeably preparing the table for the next frame.

†††† "And who-the-devil are you supposed to be?" a tall hooded figure demanded of Kelly as he turned to leave the room.

†††† "Er, Mephistopheles," the young man answered, feeling somewhat intimidated by the height of the figure who was now peering down at him from under a capacious hood.Then, suddenly, he recognized the voice and shouted "Trevor!" in delighted surprise.

†††† "Shush!" exclaimed Jenkinson, while offering him his hand to clasp."We're not supposed to give one another away, you know."

†††† Kelly duly apologized."Well, my goodness, you're the last person I'd have expected to see dressed-up like that," he added, smiling."Who exactly are you?"

†††† "A leading member of the Spanish Inquisition," Jenkinson evasively confessed, driving a current of boozy breath up Kelly's nostrils."One has to aim high here." He turned towards the snooker table."You see that chap in the Nazi uniform?Well, he's none other than Field Marshal Goering."

†††† "Really?"

†††† "Ja, though if you want to meet still higher-ranking members of the Nazi Party, you'll have to hunt around a bit.I bumped into someone coming out of the upstairs toilet who described himself as Adolf Hitler a few minutes ago."

†††† "You did!?"Kelly had almost forgotten that this was only a fancy-dress ball, so convincing were a number of the disguises.He glanced uneasily towards the rather plump figure in pink uniform before returning to his senses, as it were, and asking his fellow-writer who the lady in the nurse's uniform considered herself to be?

†††† "Oh, that's Florence Nightingale," replied Jenkinson preparatory to emptying the contents of his beer glass down his throat in one loud gulp, and this in spite of the overbearing presence of his hood, which he somehow contrived to hold in place all the while."She's the wife of that fellow in the conical hat.In fact, you wouldn't think she was wearing a uniform at all but for that zany little hat on her head.Frankly, I'm not at all convinced that Florence Nightingale would have dressed like that.Still, you could hardly take the woman for a nun or an angel now, could you?"

†††† Kelly couldn't disagree with him there."Surprises me she knows as much about snooker as she appears to," he murmured, just as the woman positioned the final ball for the next frame.

†††† "Probably on account of the fact that her husband's a fanatic," averred Jenkinson, casting the person in question a deferential glance."She knows where to put his balls alright!" he added, with an ironic chuckle."But let me tell you something."He lowered his voice and drew himself closer to Kelly's nearest ear."They play for each other's wives."

†††† The younger man drew back, as though from a blow on the face."I don't quite understand," he confessed, with a puzzled frown.

†††† "That chap in the conical hat had just lost his second successive frame to 'Goering' when you came in here," Jenkinson revealed in the same low tone."Now when a man loses twice in a row there's only one way that he can prevent his rival from taking his wife for the night.He must win the third and fourth frames.If he loses again - and they always play at least three frames each - then he has no option but to sacrifice his wife to the victor.If 'Goering' wins the next frame he'll have another woman to sleep with tonight.If he loses, however, the chap in the conical hat will get another chance to retain his wife."

†††† "I simply can't believe it!" exclaimed Kelly, whose astonishment momentarily overrode his disgust with Jenkinson's boozy breath.

†††† "Well, believe it or not, it's a fucking fact nonetheless," insisted Jenkinson, frowning."They form a kind of once-weekly wife-swapping club."

†††† But for the black eye mask he was wearing, the look of amazement which Kelly focused upon the participants described to him would have been highly conspicuous.As things stood, it was only moderately so."And how m-many of them are there?" he at length stammered.

†††† "Just three," Jenkinson revealed."To gain membership of their club one has to be a very competent snooker-player, someone who'll offer the others real competition.And, needless to say, one has to have a wife who is both highly attractive and genuinely desirable to the other competitors.Obviously, the circumstances are so special as to preclude all but a few couples from taking part, since the women must be willing to be, er, sacrificed in the event of their husbands losing the battle, and therefore they must have a liking for their husbands' competitors, who must also have a liking for them, so that mutual sex is desirable.Thus active membership of the club has been confined to three couples at any given time, though I understand there is currently a waiting-list of prospective couples numbering eight."

†††† "Eight couples?" cried Kelly, patently astonished.

†††† "Shush! Keep your ruddy voice down," hissed Jenkinson."Not everyone in this room is familiar with the proceedings."He glanced around them to reassure himself that no-one had overheard or was listening-in, before continuing: "The club's founder-member, who incidentally is the one disguised as Jessie James, started the ball rolling, as it were, just over three years ago.He's an excellent snooker player and, so far, hasn't lost more than three matches in succession.Now a match is usually comprised, as I've already intimated, of three frames.If you lose five matches in succession you automatically forfeit your membership of the club, since there must be a strong element of competition involved if the wife-swapping business isn't to become too predictable.Now since the time of the club's foundation, seven competitors have been knocked out of it and seven fresh ones have taken their places.The chap dressed as Goering, who incidentally is Mark Benson, has been a member of the club for little under six months, while the one in the conical hat has only been a member about four months.As things stand, he had lost four matches in succession during the past month - one match a week.Now if he loses this one he'll have to withdraw from the club and the remaining two members will be obliged to elect a suitable successor.You can begin to see why he looked so despondent, after having lost the second frame, and why the victor was being so heartily congratulated.For the prospect of a new member is always something that particularly appeals to the club's founder, who relishes the chance of sleeping with a different woman for a change."

†††† "Do they play only one match a week?" asked Kelly, with a puzzled expression on his masked face.

†††† "The maximum is two matches," replied Jenkinson before casting a glance in the direction of the snooker table, where the third frame had, in the meantime, just got under way."But if you lose a match, then you only get to play one.The victor plays a second with the other chap, which gives him the opportunity of sleeping with two extra women if he wins.If he loses the second match, however, he sacrifices his wife, though he still has the consolation of sleeping with the wife of the man he beat in the first match.The advantage of winning both matches is that it puts him in a position where he can also win two matches the following week, since he gets to play first.The chap he then plays is determined by the toss of a coin.On the other hand, if he wins the first match but loses the second one, he plays the fellow who beat him first the following week.That makes it possible for one of the two winners of the previous week to win two matches, whereas the first loser only gets a chance to win one, since he plays second."

†††† "I'm not sure I quite follow all that, but I think I've got the gist of it," admitted Kelly, feeling thoroughly perplexed."What particularly puzzles me about winning two matches, however, is the prize of one's sleeping with two extra women.Surely that would create a lot of problems?"

†††† "Not that I'm aware of," said Jenkinson sotto voce."Though it isn't absolutely necessary for the victor to sleep with three women at once - that's to say, with his wife and the other two on the same night.Sometimes he may choose to do so, but the club rules are sufficiently flexible to permit him to sample his prizes, as it were, one at a time.In other words, he can sleep with his wife on the Saturday and with one or both of the other women on a different night in the following week, or vice versa.It's not imperative for him to sample both prizes on the same night.He can choose any night he pleases before the next round of competitive snooker is due to start, which is to say, before the following Saturday.But he must inform his rivals when he wishes to sleep with their wives on the evening of his snooker victory, so that both they and the women concerned know exactly where they stand with him and can arrange things accordingly.Otherwise matters might become too complicated."

†††† "I can well believe it!" Kelly hastened, with a gasp of surprise, to assure his senior literary colleague."Is a two-set win a regular thing, though?" he then asked sceptically.

†††† Jenkinson appeared to be lost in thought a moment."I'm afraid I can't tell you for sure," he admitted, smiling vaguely, "since my usual informant doesn't make a point of telling me everything.But I do know that it has happened on a number of occasions, and that the victor has usually taken his rivals' wives the very same night, as though to enhance his victory and deprive them of sex at a time when, in all probability, they least wish to be deprived of it."

†††† "Who's your informant?" Kelly wanted to know.

†††† "I'm sworn to secrecy," Jenkinson confessed."However, I can tell you that he's in this room and has kept his mouth shut ever since you entered it."

†††† "He has?" gasped Kelly, looking about the room for a clue."It must be one of the club members, then - possibly the one in the outlaw's costume."

†††† "Anyway, getting back to what I was saying," continued Jenkinson,with a nervous laugh, "the competition between the rivals is usually so intense and evenly balanced that an outright double victory is relatively rare, the most common outcome being a single victory for one or two of the competitors.It often happens, however, that a set, or both matches, ends in stalemate, in which case no wife-swapping takes place."

†††† "Presumably if a player fails to win by two frames?" Kelly conjectured.

†††† "Yes.The situation here, in the match before us, is 2-0 in the 'Naziís' favour.If the 'wizard' pulls it back to 2-1, they'll have to play a fourth frame.If that ends 3-1, then the 'Nazi' will take the 'wizard's' wife, the 'nurse', for the night.If it ends in a draw, however, the 'wizard' will retain his wife and no further frame will take place between them.Now a 3-1 victory will give the 'Nazi' a chance to pull two wives by battling with the third member of the club in the second match of the evening.But if the other chap manages to sneak a draw, the toss of a coin will decide who goes through, as it were, to play it.Thus one of them could get to play the founder member without having won anything for his pains in the first match - a thing which does occasionally happen."

†††† "I see," Kelly murmured after a moment's thoughtful reflection."One gets the impression that, with so much at stake, they make it an incredibly tough competition."

†††† "Oh, absolutely!" conceded Jenkinson noddingly, once again taking pains to hold his hood in place."A player who isn't sufficiently up-to-standard will be out of the club within five weeks, assuming he loses five successive matches.Now no-one who is admitted to the club wants to be ejected from it in such a short space of time, and, as I intimated earlier, no-one is admitted to it who isn't a very competent snooker player or whose wife, even if he happens to be such, is insufficiently attractive or unwilling to take part, if you see what I mean.Unfortunately the chap who had already lost four successive matches, and looks to be in the process of losing a fifth, isn't as good a player as he was once cracked-up to be.He has merely postponed his exit from the club since joining it by drawing two matches and winning one.He had lost four successive matches by the end of his first month's membership, but was saved from immediate disgrace by drawing the fifth.Now whereas a win erases any succession of defeats from 1-4, a draw only erases one defeat, so he was still in the danger zone, as it were, by having three successive defeats to his debit.However, the draw must have given him some confidence in himself, for he won the next match and thereby erased the remaining defeats."

†††† "But now he looks on the verge of being ousted from the club?" Kelly observed.

†††† "That's right," Jenkinson confirmed."Unless, however, he can pull off another miracle and draw this match.You can see that his wife - despite the camouflage afforded her by the tiny mask she's wearing - doesn't look particularly happy at present.She has evidently found the system to her sexual advantage!"

†††† "She's quite an attractive woman," opined Kelly, as he scrutinized the masked face of the woman in nurse's uniform.She had taken up a position the opposite side of the snooker table and was now occupied with adjusting the score on a specially designed scoreboard affixed to the wall there.

†††† "Right enough," Jenkinson smilingly agreed."But there are others just as attractive where she came from!"He drew Kelly's attention to a young woman with pale blonde hair who was wearing, besides the obligatory white eye mask for females, a white blouse, a white miniskirt, a pair of virgin socks, and white trainers, reminding the young writer of the girl he had met outside the National Gallery just over a week ago."She's supposed to signify a certain mythological virgin," he continued, turning back to Kelly, "but she's really a married woman who could be next in line for club membership if the 'wizard' loses this match and her husband gains admittance in his place.As things stand, he looks the most likely candidate, since his wife is so attractive.Now sometimes they simply admit the man with the prettiest wife, but as a rule they strictly adhere to the principle of competitive entry, the first snooker player among the four or five leading candidates on the list for full membership ultimately being chosen.Naturally, they don't consider anyone who is a really brilliant player, a world champion or professional, since he would quickly dispose of them.Only a very select number of candidates are considered, and these are generally well-known to themselves."

†††† "How extraordinary!" exclaimed Kelly in the teeth of a certain incredulity which was now pressing him to doubt the veracity of most of what he had just heard, particularly in view of his senior literary colleague's progressively more inebriated condition."You're not kidding me by any chance, Trevor?" he hastened to add.

†††† For once, Jenkinson's face seemed on the point of losing its customary composure."My dear old mate, I may be a trifle tipsy, but I'd hardly put myself to the sodding trouble of revealing so much complicated information to you if I were!" he exploded.

†††† At that moment an almost parallel explosion of noise from the assembled spectators indicated that 'Goering' had won the match 3-0 and thereby vanquished the 'necromancer', whose countenance, such as one could see of it, now bore all the hallmarks of total defeat.Shaking his head from side-to-side, this unfortunate individual seemed on the verge of tears, as the victor received hearty congratulations from those standing around him.A man dressed as a pirate, with a long black beard, a black tee-shirt bearing the skull-and-crossbones in contrasting white, a red kerchief tied round his head, and a pair of knee-high black leather boots, was also being congratulated by various people, and, after offering a few words of perfunctory condolence to the loser, who in the meantime had relinquished his cue and regretfully shaken hands with the victor as though to seal his fate, he proceeded to throw his arms around the neck of the young woman dressed in all-white, whose face immediately became radiant with pleasure.

†††† "Seems as though I was right about the 'vestal virgin' and her husband being the next members of the club," declared Jenkinson, as he extracted a large cigar from the inside pocket of his flowing robes."The husband's the one dressed as Blackbeard, by the way.You can't miss him.Had old greybeard been a genuine wizard, instead of some chap in fancy dress who goes by the name of 'Saruman' or some such nonsense, he might have managed to prolong his stay in the club with the help of a little black magic.As it happens, he and his wife have lost their permits."

†††† "Can't they ever win them back?" asked Kelly, whose eyes sought out and found the woman dressed as Florence Nightingale.

†††† "Only if the competition to get into the club eases-up a little in the near future, which, entre nous, it doesn't look like doing," replied Jenkinson, who commenced to light his cigar with the aid of a large red match."As a rule, once a couple lose their place they don't get it back.Admittedly, there haven't been that many couples involved in the club to-date.But the fact is that the members don't want pushovers in their game, and anyone who loses five matches in succession can hardly be described as tough competition.The chances now are that if this 'Blackbeard' transpires to being a useful competitor, we won't see a change in the club's membership for some time."

†††† Kelly proffered a politely incredulous smile."It would be interesting if the founder-member got knocked out of his club, wouldn't it?" he speculated a touch roguishly.

†††† "Yes, it would indeed," chuckled Jenkinson."But knowing the quality player he is, that seems rather unlikely to me.After all, one doesn't have to be a world champion to avoid losing five straight matches.... Though it hardly needs emphasizing that there's no better incentive for improving one's game than to risk sacrificing one's wife to another man for the night.And that's the chief reason why the level of play is generally so high."He took a few philosophical puffs on his cigar and picked up his empty beer glass from the small table by his side.The celebrations over the 'Naziís' victory were dying down now as another woman, dressed in nun's attire and wearing the obligatory white eye mask, laid out the variously coloured balls on the snooker table for the commencement of the next match, which was due to take place between 'Goering' and 'Jessie James' as soon as the former had been given a chance to refresh himself and thereby restore his mind to something approaching competitive fitness, following the sapping exigencies of the preceding duel.As she bent over the table to arrange the brightly coloured balls in their respective positions, Kelly thought he recognized a familiar nose and mouth.But before he could suggest anything of the kind to Trevor, the latter had mumbled something about more beer and turned towards the door.

†††† Realizing that his wine glass could also use a refill, Kelly followed his senior colleague back in the direction of the living room, where at that moment a jazz-funk recording had prompted a number of people to dance.This being the case, it was with some difficulty that both men made their way towards the booze, which, mercifully, was still in plentiful supply.Helping himself to more wine, Kelly noted that some of the guests were wearing similar costumes to each other; that women garbed as nuns or angels could be seen dancing with men dressed as Nazis or pirates, and he remarked on this observation to Jenkinson, who, oblivious of the dancing, was thirstily downing some of the stout he had just poured himself.

†††† "Never any shortage of duplications at these fancy-dress charades," the latter belchingly responded, as soon as he could bring himself to observe the goings-on with a modicum of equanimity."Largely down to a lack of imagination on the participants' part, I suspect.Still, it can contribute, in a paradoxical sort of way, to one's enjoyment of the thing."†† He drew lustily on his cigar whilst intently observing the aquiline profile of a nun who danced close-by in the company of the infamous vampire whom Kelly had seen proudly arriving at the ball shortly after his own rather more uncertain arrival.No doubt, 'Count Dracula' would find somewhere juicy to bury his fangs later that evening!

†††† Jenkinson having decided to return to the snooker room, James Kelly once more found himself abandoned and therefore back to square-one, so to speak.But this time there was more going on than before, and consequently he contented himself with investigating the various costumes and endeavouring to ascertain what famous or infamous personage, real or fictitious, was being represented in each case.Given the stylized nature of most of the costumes, he had little difficulty in figuring out the majority of them, although he was unable to attach any specific names to the various 'nuns', 'Nazis', 'angels', and 'pirates' who regularly commanded his attention.No doubt, they could have supplied him with one had he bothered to ask each of them individually - a thing, however, he had no intention of doing!But among the couples who particularly impressed him was a tall man disguised as a werewolf, who danced on the edge of the whirling throng with a slender nymph-like creature of distinctly youthful appearance.They formed quite an eye-arresting contrast!

†††† Several minutes later, vacating the rather gaseous upstairs toilet, Kelly found himself confronted by a 'nun', the very same 'nun' whom he had earlier seen preparing the snooker table for the next match.The woman was ascending the stairs as he was on the point of descending them and, from where he stood, he had no difficulty in discerning the sharp nose of Mrs Searle.

†††† "Paloma!" he cried, as she approached him with a gracious smile on her lips."I thought I recognized you in the snooker room a while ago."

†††† She had got to the top step and stood gazing fixedly into his eyes a moment, as though to make sure of his actual identity.Then, evidently satisfied, she motioned him to follow her and, without looking back, swiftly led him up another flight of stairs to a locked room on the second floor.Taking a small key from a pocket in the side of her costume, she deftly unlocked the door and, with a brief glance over her shoulder to make sure that no-one had followed them or was lurking nearby, boldly led him into the room.Then locking the door behind them, she returned the key to its allocated pocket and straightaway removed her eye mask.

†††† Seeing that the room was otherwise empty, Kelly did likewise, and the two of them stood facing each other a moment.Without giving him time to say anything, she threw her arms about his neck and glued her mouth to his.A wave of sensuous excitement surged through him as he felt the pressure of her energetic lips pressing importunately against his own.Lifting her off the ground, he carried her to the small double-bed that stood, as if to attention, in the middle of the room, and threw her down upon it.She reached up to him and drew his head towards her.

†††† "But Paloma!" he protested, as soon as he could disengage himself from the sensuous crush of her lips."What about your husband?Surely we can't ..."

†††† "My husband's much too preoccupied with other matters to have either the time or the inclination to think about us," she almost caustically reassured him.And again she pressed her mouth to his."Oh, James, I want this so much," she murmured.

†††† "But isn't it a little ...?"However, the temptation was too much for him, and already his hands were instinctively groping her costume for the buttons which would enable him to free her from it and get at the real woman concealed beneath.

†††† "Don't waste this valuable opportunity, James," Mrs Searle was mumbling, as his hands impatiently divested her of her outer garments and he beheld, to his utmost astonishment, a pair of black stockings topped with white suspenders and a matching G-string!

†††† "My God, woman, I can't believe it!" he gasped, struck by the contrast between the primness of her nun's attire and the seductiveness of what she was wearing underneath."Where one might expect to find a chastity belt one finds a G-string!"

†††† "I'm full of pleasant surprises," averred Mrs Searle, drawing him down upon her lips again."And I think you will be, too," she added, as she felt the last flimsy obstacle to her most private parts being peremptorily wrenched from her groin by an impatient 'Mephisto', whose newly awakened penis was already tickling the inner sides of her thighs in a flagrantly lascivious manner.All it now required, to start the ball rolling in earnest, was an imperious thrust into the submissive trough of sexual delights beyond, and Kelly wasn't long in supplying one as, freeing himself from the last impediment to his goal, he clawed his way inside her with a series of rapid thrusts which caused her to squirm in a confusion of pain and pleasure, tightening her grip on him all the more.Only when he was fully inside her, however, did he hesitate an instant, as though to take stock of his position and assess the best way to proceed.But spurred-on by the momentum of her vaginal contractions, he took a firm grip on her buttocks and launched himself anew with a vigour which took even Paloma by surprise, so that she sighed in delirious abandon and thrashed about from side-to-side like some kind of demented fish which had just been hooked and was desperately flailing around for a way to escape its captor.

†††† But there was no escaping James Kelly as he reeled her in with fresh resolve and mounting determination, his carnal passion inflamed by her frantic bucking, which had the effect of making him even more determined to remain in control of their passionate coupling, come what may.He would not be defeated by this wild creature, who would soon be tamed by him into accepting his every move and completely abandon herself to his will as, gripping hold of her ankles from behind, he pinned her legs back over her shoulders for a final assault on the cavernous depths of flesh which seemed to swallow him like some all-devouring mouth into which he feared he was about to be sucked - hook, line, and sinker!He swooned in a flood of hot semen which gushed out of him in a succession of spasmodic jerks so rapid in their intensity that it seemed as though they had been propelled by some inhuman force akin to a bolt of lightning, and which had the cataclysmic effect of triggering a like-response from her in the form of a clitoral thunderclap which shook their respective bodies from head to toe as, finally and utterly, she offered up every last drop of passion to him in one long rumble of orgasmic oblivion - the fiery nexus of a storm which had reached a peak and could only fade away in ever-decreasing cycles of rumbling.Exhausted, its perpetrators slumped into each other's arms in the redemption of post-coital quietus, recipients of a peace which, though fundamentally worldly, was akin to heaven in its complacent beatitude.Indeed, which was nothing less than heaven-on-earth!

†††† Ten minutes later Kelly's chest was serving as a pillow for the beautiful woman's head, the body of whom had so thoroughly captivated him, only to free him from preoccupations with sex and return him to something approaching sexual innocence again.It wasn't long, however, before his mind began to resurrect its former anxiety over the situation in which another man's wife had landed him.Remembering his glimpse of her in the snooker room, he wanted to know whether the figure in cowboy gear who had been playing snooker at the time was her husband, and pressed her accordingly.

†††† "Yes," she admitted with a faint sigh, which was unmistakably one of regret."That's Douglas alright.I suppose Trevor told you all about our little club?"

†††† "Not all about it but quite a bit, I'm afraid," Kelly almost guiltily confessed."I learned, anyway, that your husband wasn't in the habit of losing."He paused to reflect a while, then continued: "Am I correct in assuming that the wife of the defending player is always responsible for arranging the table before a frame takes place, and then of keeping the score whilst it's in progress, so that the prize for the attacking player is constantly before his eyes?"

†††† "It depends what you mean by 'defending' and 'attacking' players," she replied, momentarily shifting her head to a more comfortable position on his chest."But you appear to have grasped the general principles of the arrangement.As Mark Benson, the one in the Nazi uniform, had won the first match, he was given the privilege, as it's somewhat esoterically known, of having the second player's wife on points duty."

†††† "Then how did you get away?" Kelly asked.

†††† "Simply by adhering to the club's rules," she explained."In normal circumstances, I'd have to take care of the score.But in the relatively exceptional circumstances afforded by someone's imminent departure from the club, the wife of the loser has to keep the score of the second match as well.She is merely spared the duty of arranging the table before the first frame.Thereafter she also arranges it."

†††† Kelly was fairly nonplussed."Why doesn't she arrange it for the first frame as well?" he not unreasonably wanted to know.

†††† "Because the competitor with the advantage, the 'attacking' player, likes to see the wife of his opponent before the commencement of the frame," Paloma revealed."Ordinarily he would have her service throughout the match, even if he was 2-0 down.But in this case, with the loser expelled from the club, it's only necessary for her to appear at the very beginning.The loser's wife is given double duty as a kind of humiliation for her and punishment for him, since neither of them has any further duties to perform thereafter."

†††† "What strange rules!" cried Kelly, whose high-pitched tone indicated genuine bewilderment."So the poor 'wizard's' wife is presumably doing double duty at this very moment?"

†††† "Yes, I expect so," replied Paloma smilingly."They began the first frame a minute or two before I encountered you on the stairs, so I'd imagine they're now playing the second or third.After which, there may be a fourth."

†††† "And that would presumably leave the score at either 3-1 or 2-2," conjectured Kelly, whose right hand was at that very moment straying over Mrs Searle's nude back and on down to the curvaceous bulge of her right buttock, where it came to a temporary halt at a reasonably discreet distance from the more patently erogenous zone.

†††† "Yes, theoretically it would," she confirmed."Although, as a rule, frames between Douglas and Mark aren't easily won.There's very rarely a 3-0 victory for either man."

†††† "Yet I understand that your husband is generally the more successful player?" revealed Kelly, recalling what Trevor Jenkinson had told him.

†††† There was a short pause while Mrs Searle shifted the position of her head again and emitted a faint, albeit meaningful, sigh for Kelly's dubious benefit.

†††† "So what's his record against Mark like?" he pressed her, once he realized that she had no intention of replying to his previous comment.

†††† "Of the last twenty matches between them, my husband has won eight, drawn nine, and lost only three," she reluctantly obliged.

†††† "I see," he said tactfully."A statistic which leads one to surmise that he has sexual access to Sylvia Benson's body more often than Mark has access to yours.And, on top of that, he has the 'wizard's' wife quite a few times, too, I shouldn't wonder."

†††† "Had the 'wizard's' wife," Paloma corrected."The last opportunity fell to Mark this evening."

†††† "Ah yes, so it did!" admitted Kelly, frowning slightly."Hmm, things begin to add up, you know."

†††† "Do they?"

†††† "Yes, so it would seem!"He gently kissed her head and, turning her over onto her back, so that he was looking down at her on raised elbow, began to scrutinize her face, which at that moment assumed an enigmatic smile."You're going to be rather tired of sex if Mark beats your husband tonight and thereby gains physical access to you," he concluded.

†††† "Not too tired," she declared."But the chances are fairly high that Mark won't beat him tonight; that, on the contrary, the match will either end in a draw or Douglas will beat Mark and thereby gain physical access to Sylvia instead."

†††† "Won't he make love to you as well, if he wins her?" Kelly pressed her, determined to extract every last crumb of relevant information about this whole corrupt business from his over-generous hostess, who was about as far gone in extramarital infidelity as it was possible to go, short of ceasing to be decadent and becoming barbarously promiscuous instead!

†††† "No, I shall be obliged to sleep alone in my bed while he sleeps with her in an adjoining room," she almost matter-of-factly confessed.

†††† "That must make you feel somewhat jealous," Kelly deduced.

†††† "At first it did," she admitted, blushing."But I suppose I'm used to it by now and, besides, it makes it easier for me to be here with you."She drew him closer to her and kissed his lips a sufficient number of times for him to feel his earlier lust rekindled to something approaching a flame as, desiring to repay her still more sensuously, he forced his tongue between her lips and began to chase after hers with a view to ensnaring and finally subduing it - a thing he wasn't to do without a struggle which lasted several minutes.For she turned her head this way and that in a tantalizing display of female teasing, which culminated in one of the most passionate kissing bouts he had ever experienced.In fact, it turned him on so much that he felt obliged to transfer his tongue to her nether lips and go in search of her clitoris with a probing rapacity which caused her to buck and pant anew in head-on confrontation with the most exquisitely tortuous oral pleasure she'd had the good fortune to experience in as long as she cared or dared to remember.Yes, it was something of a moral vindication for her to be there with him that night and, as this latest assault on pleasure ran its frenzied course, to be wrapped in a warm embrace such that put her husband firmly in the carnal shade.For it was James Kelly who had really defeated Douglas Searle this evening, and she had no compunction about letting him know it.

†††† "But how did you get the key to this room?" he asked with a tongue which ached so much that he thought he wouldn't be able to eat with it, never mind talk properly, for several days to come.

†††† "Through Sylvia," she replied."She has more sympathy for me than anyone else, and quite understandably so, when one bears in mind the extent to which she is implicated in any inconvenience or embarrassment which may befall me in consequence of Douglas' snooker excesses!"At which point Paloma Searle felt obliged to chuckle to herself, before continuing: "Anyway, she promised to keep it a secret, which is probably just as well.Though my husband is hardly in a position to make a moral fuss, is he?"

†††† Such a patently rhetorical question needed no response from James Kelly, who merely contented himself by running his overworked tongue across the expanse of Mrs Searle's taut breasts a few times, her responsive nipples duly responding in a sexually responsible manner.In fact, the curve of her body fascinated him, as did the various scents emanating from its light-brown skin.Ideally, he would have liked to make love to her all over again, to screw himself into her throbbing trough as deeply and lastingly as possible, until such time as there was no more life left in him and, as a spent force, hehung limply inside her, like a somnolent baby in its mother's all-encompassing arms.But, on second thoughts, that struck him as unmanly and ultimately self-defeating; for in that flaccid state it seemed to him that he would be more like a weak male animal being squeezed to death by a ravenous pythoness than a conquering hero seeking sanctuary from the conquered.Anyway, metaphysical qualms aside, he knew that he had experienced more sexual pleasure in one night with Paloma Searle than in dozens of nights with anyone else, and that there was a limit to everything, pleasure included.

†††† "I must say, I find this whole business of the snooker club somewhat crazy," he at length confessed.

†††† "I suppose it is in a way," Paloma conceded."But it's what my husband wants and, frankly, I prefer him to have his way.It would take too long to explain everything now, and time is one thing there isn't much left off.But, well, let's just say that our marriage wasn't particularly successful before he began the snooker racket in response to a dare from Mark one day."

†††† Kelly was distinctly puzzled by this comment."Is it any more successful now?" he asked.

†††† "In some respects I'd say it was," she hesitantly replied."You see, Douglas is essentially polygamous, so the possibility of sleeping with two other women once a week goes some way towards catering for his needs.Before he started the club, life was more difficult for me than at present, even though I sometimes still get jealous when he sleeps with another woman, especially one of the club's new members.For instance, he used to swear at me and bugger me and flirt with his secretaries and do all sorts of things which he has since ..."

†††† "Outgrown?" suggested Kelly, in the teeth of his impatience with her hesitation.

†††† "No, not outgrown, exactly, so much as learnt to modify or redirect into other channels," she corrected."Strangely, our marriage is now on a better footing than it has been for a number of years.He has the possibility of actually winning himself another man's wife every week and, believe it or not, the excitement which results from that has done a lot to stabilize our relationship and make it more tolerable.And the same is generally true of the other couples' relationships as well - marriages which were all on the rocks before Mark came-up with the idea of the club, and Douglas and I made it a reality.The men, apart from the one who is beaten at snooker more often than he wins, are generally happier, and the women ... aren't exactly opposed to a change of bed-partner once a week, providing they can actually get it."

†††† "But you don't get that change as often as the other two women involved in the arrangement, and are consequently left on the wife-swapping shelf, so to speak, more often than suits you," Kelly deduced from the wistful nature of the smile on her lips at that moment.

†††† "Quite true," Paloma admitted."But at least I know who the other women are, which is a damn sight better than being in the dark about who one's husband fucks behind one's back when it suits him, the double-crossing promiscuous bastard!So the 'Adultery Club', as we tend to call it, does have certain advantages which perhaps a less decadent society would fail to appreciate.Besides, when a man is not cut-out for a strictly monogamous existence, it would be a sort of crime to force strict fidelity to one woman upon him."

†††† "I suppose it would," said Kelly who, though he had never really thought too deeply about the matter before, was of the belief that monogamy was the centralized ideal of Western civilization and thus something relatively moral in relation to polygamy, whether that polygamy was official, and hence pertinent to an absolutely barbarous age, or effective, and hence symptomatic, like extramarital infidelities, of a civilized decadence.Having thought which, he glanced at his wristwatch and suggested to Mrs Searle that, having just turned 11.00pm, it was high time they put in another appearance downstairs, before people began to grow suspicious of their absence and to miss them - assuming that wasn't already the case.

†††† "Yes, I guess so," she agreed."I expect Douglas and Mark are into the final frame by now."

†††† "Doesn't that excite you?" Kelly teased her.

†††† She smiled up at him again and, draping an arm around his neck, said: "Not as much as you do, sugar.Besides, the chances are that my husband won't lose.He takes it all so damned seriously."They got up from the bed and began to dress."Oh well, I guess I'm going to have to play at being a nun again, and you're going to play ... who?" she asked, glancing at his wig, which had lost much of its former Faustian elegance and was now barely covering his pate.

†††† "Mephistopheles!" he asseverated, feeling genuinely amused by his role for the first time all evening."A Mephisto who, as a token of his esteem for the dear 'nun' who seduced him into committing a sinful act with her, would like to keep the G-string which he removed from the good lady's body during the tempestuous course of his lascivious temptations."

†††† "I suppose I shall have to accord you that privilege," she declared, as her nun's attire fell into place over her dark stockings, thus concealing any evidence of its absence."But don't you dare show it to anyone downstairs, otherwise that'll be the last time I'll grant you such a favour!"

†††† After they had dressed, put-on their respective eye masks again, and rearranged the bedcovers, Mrs Searle unlocked the door and, peering out to ensure that no-one was lurking in the shadows, signalled Kelly to follow her.Once the door was secured behind them, she gave him a quick peck on the lips and instructed him to count to fifty before following her downstairs.Then, with a final adjustment to her nun's habit, she turned on her heels and quickly descended the top flight of stairs.

†††† When, at a discreet interval, Kelly returned to life on the ground floor, he found the fancy-dress ball even livelier than before, thanks in large measure to the significant quantities of alcohol which had been imbibed by 'good' and 'bad' alike, though especially the latter, in the meantime.People were still dancing in the living room, though he was at pains to recognize any of the dancers he had seen there earlier that evening.Prominent among them, however, was a plump figure dressed up, to judge by his blue tunic and three-cornered hat, as Napoleon Bonaparte, whom he fancied to be Keith Brady.Yet despite his close proximity, the figure in question paid him no attention but continued to dance with a young woman garbed in an expensive-looking early-nineteenth-century dress to which Kelly could attach no specific historical personage, though he conjectured the likelihood of Napoleon's consort, the Empress Josephine.Not wishing to be dragged into the dance himself, however, and finding very little wine left in any of the decanters, he opted to visit the snooker room in order to discover what, if anything, had happened since his last visit, nearly an hour ago.

†††† Fortunately for him an even larger gathering of people than before was to be found there, and Kelly trusted they would serve to camouflage his probable embarrassment in the presence of Douglas Searle and immediate company.As it happened, the final frame of the match had been decided a few minutes earlier, while he was in the living room, but he hadn't heard the congratulatory outburst which had issued from the onlookers on account of the volume of the sound system, which was still spinning discs in the dancers' funky service.The match had ended, he now learnt, in a 3-1 victory for 'Jessie James', 'Goering' having pulled himself back from the brink of defeat at 2-0 only to succumb two frames later - which meant that the latter's wife would have to be loaned to the victor for the night. Though the loser did have the consolation of sleeping with the 'wizard's' wife, whom he had of course acquired, compliments of the first match.

†††† On hearing the score Kelly could only emit a barely-concealed sigh of relief; for he was only too pleased that, in consequence of his victory over Mark Benson, Mr Searle wouldn't be sleeping with his own wife later that night.There would be little possibility of his suspicions rather than his passions being aroused by Paloma, if he was destined to sleep with another woman instead.

†††† "So you're back here again!" the 'leading member of the Spanish Inquisition' bellowed in his ear."I thought you'd gone home or something."

†††† The last part of that sentence didn't create a particularly favourable impression on James Kelly, but he assured the hooded figure, whose breath reeked more sharply of both booze and tobacco than it had ever done before, that he had absolutely no intentions of going home.

†††† "Don't tell me you've been listening to jazz-funk all this time?" rasped Jenkinson from behind an intensely disapproving mien."I thought you didn't like it."

†††† "On the contrary, I find it most stimulating," confessed Kelly who, though momentarily bewildered by the potency of the taller man's breath, was doing his best to lend credence to his claim by launching into an impromptu display of bodily self-realization for his literary colleague's baffled benefit.

†††† "Well, you've missed a damn fine set of snooker all the same," averred Jenkinson, who took hold of Kelly's arm as much to stop him from dancing as to prevent himself from losing his balance and tumbling to the floor in the proximity of such a bewildering spectacle.He pointed in the general direction of Douglas Searle with a finger which wavered on the end of an unsteady arm and said: "That chap's gone and done it again.Got himself the little 'angel' with cardboard wings for the night.You can see how delighted he is, in spite of the double disguise of eyes and mouth.After all, how many guests take their host's wife back home with them once the party's over, eh?First-rate hospitality, I call it!"His grip tightened on Kelly's arm, as he made to steady himself and protect his tenuous incognito as best he could."One of these days you ought to get married and join the club, James.You might profit from it, mate."

†††† "I don't think I'd want to join it," the latter confessed.

†††† "Ah, that's what they all say!" growled Jenkinson in sceptical dismissal."The trouble with us writers is that we're all too moral-minded.We reserve such immorality as we may be capable of mustering from what's left of our imagination, after the media have taken their daily toll on us, for our wretched books, and have nothing much left over to spare on our private lives.We put so much effort into saying and doing deplorable things in print, that our actual lives are deplorably conservative.The only time we're genuinely interesting is when we're being read, and that, as you ought to know, isn't every day!"

†††† "One gets the impression that you only say such things under the influence," said Kelly, whose arm was increasingly bearing the burden of Jenkinson's inebriated condition."Perhaps you'll recant it all tomorrow morning?"

†††† "Provided I actually live to see the frigging morning," Jenkinson guffawed with uninhibited gusto."But, first, I think I'll have to get home.What d'you say about hiring a taxi for the pair of us?"

†††† Despite his disgust with Jenkinson, whose condition was no credit to his Torquemada disguise, James Kelly didn't think that a particularly bad idea in the circumstances, and before long - the formalities of phoning for a cab having been attended to with a modicum of competence - a cabby had arrived and they were able to take their unsteady leave of the place.With a farewell smile from Mrs Searle to take back with him, Kelly was satisfied that the evening had been relatively successful, and not the complete and utter waste of time he had at first feared.

†††† For his part, Jenkinson was feeling too drunk to have anything much to say in the taxi.But he did manage to keep his beer down and to desist from further smoking all the way to his Crouch End house, which was of some relief to his fellow-passenger.Once Jenkinson had been virtually shoulder-lifted to his front door, however, the cabby was free to deal with Kelly's address, and shortly after midnight the latter found himself slowly ascending the communal stairs to his small flat on the first floor.

†††† Later that morning he dreamt that Douglas Searle, still garbed in his outlaw costume, had just beat him in a snooker match and thereby acquired access to Sharon's carnal favours.Realizing what was about to happen he shouted: "No, you can't fucking-well have her!" and threw himself upon the masked assailant, who immediately drew a revolver from his holster and was about to fire at Kelly when the latter woke-up in a panic, to find himself lying in a pool of sweat in his single bed!He realized, after a couple of uncertain seconds, that he had merely experienced a nightmare and was consequently still alive and well!



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