G N O S I S
Susan glanced down into the body of her scooter as the motor performed its predictable swan song, stalling as she braked before the gates. From inside her helmet she scrutinized the guard's expression, then the key with which he had locked the twin partitions.
“What’s all this?” she called, pushing back her visor.
“Gates close at eighteen hundred.” Shaw replied through the iron. “Order of Mr Lamb senior.”
“No one gave me a key...”
He smiled, unlocking the chain.
“Guess this is your lucky day. Go see Mr Lamb about getting yourself one.” A look of profound reluctance swept her face as she walked her scooter past him, struggling with the front wheel as the weight of her grocery bags forced it sideways. His gaze followed her bandaged arm when she took hold of the throttle once more. “Not someone you want to run into every day?”
Susan assumed a faint, inquiring frown.
"How do you mean?"
"I gotta say... he's a little frosty to a brother." When she squinted at him, Shaw abandoned his conspiratorial chuckle, looking away toward the corner of the house. The fragrant smoke that blew toward them issued from the small party gathered beneath the elm. “Don’t sweat the key. I’ll get a copy made, drop it off to you say... around eight tomorrow morning? Coffee's on you.”
She shook her head.
"Don't bother... I'll get my own."
"Damn, now you're frosty." he declared. "I'm going downtown right after work... it's not a problem. So... eight's okay?" Rather than contest his insistence Susan pushed the bike forward and began trundling along the drive. “What happened?" he called, tapping his arm to indicate the bandage on her own.
"Yeah? You do that here?" He watched her coast along the slope, enlisting the enclosure of her helmet to disregard the query.
Shaw awaited her reaction to the sight of the distant trio. William leaned forward and kissed the cheeks of a handsome blonde woman in a long, yoked dress splashed with wave blue, green and mandarin, a younger, dark-clad companion receiving the same respectful greeting. To the guard’s surprise, Susan kept her visor down and coasted quickly toward the garage.
The smoke curling from the sage bough in the witch's hand perfumed William's clothes and hair, describing slow, violet circles in the air beneath the elm. Frederica closed her eyes and stifled a cough, bowing her head while the rite was concluded and the woman stepped back from the foot of the tall white wall, planting the smouldering branch in the ground beside them. A faded, woad-blue line, the ancient emblem of her sisterhood, descended her weathered forehead from her hairline to the beginning of her sun-browned nose. She wore it plainly, eschewing the cosmetic discretion favoured by many of her contemporaries; Frederica had not yet submitted to the sacrament that would entitle her to wear it. The senior witch patted her little cowrie-beaded bag and drew out a small Cohíba, accepting a light from William as she composed her impressions.
“I won’t lie to you, my dear... none of this is good.” she sighed, her wheat-coloured lashes fluttering in an unconscious expression of reluctance. “That is not to say I am not confused, because this is exactly, exactly what I am.” Her provincial Swedish accent formed a lively counterpoint to the gravity of her words. “I am seeing great confusion, and er... målmedvetenhet... a great purpose.” She looked toward Frederica, who brushed windfall smuts from the sleeve of her black dress. “Dotter, you thought this?”
“I’m no good with this stuff...” said the younger woman, reinstating her glasses. “I just don’t go there unless I know for sure. And I don't."
“You don’t go there?” the Swedish witch exclaimed reproachfully. “You’re a haxa, and that is what we do! There is where we go!”
Frederica shrugged under the elder’s gaze.
“It’s heavy... I don’t like heavy stuff.” The latter abandoned her reproof and urged another light from William, and the trio looked together at the security guard as he crossed the front garden toward them, hands in his pockets.
“As I say... I can not lie, Villiam, it is no good.” she advised. “So, come... what would you know?” The witch’s gold-streaked hair sat in two coils on her head, resembling horns or supernumerary auricles; she watched him with her lips slightly parted and her eyes half closed, extolling him to question her oracular facility in a manner that would satisfy them both.
“Female?” he asked.
“Happy? Nej. Oh no. No no.”
William looked from her again toward Shaw, who had passed through the shade behind them and stood frowning down at a silver camera, adjusting its settings. The witches exchanged dubious looks as he lifted the appliance to his face and began taking pictures of the side of the house, with its faint trail of gouges in the plaster and the little board of ply that had replaced the missing pane. The women blinked at the flash in unison; engrossed behind the camera, Shaw did not perceive William's approach until it was too late to prevent him snatching the offending object from his hands and extracting the memory card.
"Mr Lamb, it's my job to document this incident..." Shaw exclaimed, shaking his head while William pitched the camera into the shadowed orchard, muttering over his shoulder as he walked back to his companions.
"If you don't like him my dear, I think I could have use for him." chuckled the blonde witch upon his return.
"Tilde, I'd drop kick him your way in a second, but my brother's actually paying him to mouth-breathe the local air." He let his head fall and closed his eyes, shaking off the interruption, and the woman resumed her look of receptivity. “Alive?” he asked.
“Ah, hm, yes, now we come to something. What was here... has feet in this place and feet in that one.” Her freckled hands indicated the relative positions of the realms that she discussed. “A thing of both."
"Merde." he sighed.
"Does that help you, child?” She watched him nod reluctantly.
“What should I do?”
“Look at this! You have question, and this one must learn to answer.” the witch assured him, turning to Frederica to supply a solution; the girl stared up into the sky as the twilight deepened.
“You could try banishing, I guess.” she offered.
“Ja, and what will he need for this banish?”
“That's an old-school thing. Maybe I’m not who you should be talking to...”
“Fred, it’s fine... I know I’ll need a corpse.” William replied. She nodded as she took out her phone and scrolled down through the addresses.
“Lydia and Cybelle... they’re heavy dralna... banishment’s their big thing. They think I’m miss pissy sunshine so don’t drop my name, whatever you do.”
Her expediency made the Swedish witch throw up her hands and stoop to gather what remained of her sage boughs, clasping them to her breast and reaching out with a sympathetic smile to accept the gratuity William handed her.
“Thank you, Tilde.” he said quietly. She leant closer to him.
“This girl that you are thinking of... dark eyes... I like. Hot trouble for you, and bossy, but you need, so don't you fear. About this other thing, I am sorry I can say no more, but you are en underlig uppenbarelse, and I am only from Malmberget. Lycka till."
The silvered scent of smoke filled Susan's rooms and she blew it away from herself, hauling her grocery bags past the bed she had pushed against the wall furthest from the window. In the kitchenette she took her time over the placement of each grocery item in the small refrigerator, swearing softly to herself as she was forced to reorder once again her memories of the night before, its fragments both lucid and elusive, exchanging opacity and translucence as mutable emphasis alighted on each and altered its character. William's benign attendance blurred less accountable details, his company like drifts of windblown white over the facts of the assault which seemed only to recede in her estimation with the passage of the hours. She shoved aside a block of cheese and hoisted a plastic bottle of milk into the vacancy, muttering at the sight of the black smudge on her bandage from the workings of the scooter, noting with the same frown the weight her arm had borne without discomfort. Susan twisted her wrist, rolling it as far as she dared in search of pain or incapacity or any confirmation of the injuries it had sustained; when none would oblige her she stood up from the squat little fridge and fished a knife from the cutlery drawer, scowling tightly as she slid the blade beneath the crepe tied at the heel of her palm. Its dull edge would pare neither fabric nor its securing knot, and she dropped it into the sink on her way to the bathroom.
The ancient pair of nail scissors from the medicine cabinet proved no more efficacious, though she propped her arm on the basin and sawed at the impervious knot, munching the crepe that refused the pinching fingers of her left hand and drove her to shake the bound limb furiously. On looking up into the small, foxed mirror she saw not her own grimacing features but the photograph from William's room, tucked into the framing and standing with all the sequestered dignity of an icon, though its radiance worked only to dissolve her articles of faith, bleeding the uncertain colours from the previous evening, effacing precious subtleties before they could be assorted. While she struggled with them, the memory of the attack merged with William's ministrations and battered her with suggestions of grotesque sequelae; she struck her elbow on the door frame in her haste to flee the room and stumble down the stairs.
Sage smoke trailed throughout the ground floor. William sat in the drawing room before the malachite fireplace, a waxing blaze licking through tinder and lighting the imperious colours of the kilim beneath him. The great chamber seemed content in darkness, the window glass reflecting the flames that snapped around his silhouette. When he lifted the face that she had studied so long in stolen monochrome Susan grasped her bandaged arm as if the limb were visibly pathological, hotly-coloured and half-breathless.
“Something's wrong." she told him. "I can't get this thing off... you'll have to do it for me."
He looked up from the crepe to her expression almost reluctantly.
“It's too soon... you need to wait five days.”
"Who was that woman? The one outside my room, burning branches?"
"Who was she?"
Susan shook her head with her eyes closed.
"No, I mean... what was she doing?" She gave up the demand that drowned anyway amongst the hundred others scrabbling for precedence. "Everything keeps... I can't remember it, and everything I do remember runs away..." she murmured, running a hand over the dressing toward her wrist. "There's something under here... I can't feel anything. I have to see it."
"Christabel..." he sighed.
"Take it off now. I mean it."
"Nothing good will come of this. Five days is all I ask."
Despite the plea her anxiety moved him against his own advice and he lifted a hand toward her; she stepped back, then checked herself, offering her arm again with renewed conviction. He examined the dressing, then gazed at her intently, as if required to commit her image to memory; it almost prompted her to question him again, but she climbed down onto her knees, too quickly in her exigence, a short vertiginous spin prompting her to catch his sleeve and steady herself. William reached into the pocket of his jeans and withdrew a folding knife, the cold spine of the blade sliding over her hidden skin as he cut through the crepe and brushed it back in silence, gathering up the dressing and committing it to the fire in a strange gesture of finality.
Underneath the bandage the lacerations had knitted so completely that the black stitches had slackened and stood in loops over her skin. It had gained a nacreous texture where the wounds had closed, neither the ugly, naked compromise of fresh scarring nor the passive accord of older damage, the lines drawn in a soft, pearlescent white. The last traces of the dark salve dusted from her wrist, falling to the carpet. Uncomprehending, she crawled closer to the fire and ran a hand over the redundant stitches, bringing her arm to her face and gazing at it as though she were not certain it was still her own. William said nothing to her astonishment.
She stood and walked to the French doors, consulting the evening outside and wandering away from the dark panes to stand in the midst of the room, finally returning to the hearth to pass her arm over the fire in an unconscious test of its reality. The dry, velvety flames licked the black thread in her skin and ignited rows of tiny embers, sparking and dying in a fleeting sequence until the stitches burnt away. He took her wrist and brushed off the remaining thread, his dispassion accepting credit for the prodigy on his behalf, and Susan worked her fingers, watching the thews and muscle replying in the firelight as they had always done, the new scars throwing lines of shallow pink shadow. He could hear her heart labouring thickly in her chest as it had done the night before as she knelt beside him, uttering sounds that began the words that she abandoned. Her stare was difficult to endure, knowing the extent to which the nearby fire favoured his least accountable elements, but if she saw them, it was still desire that spoke on her behalf, the wonder he had effected muting all the dark suggestion that had survived it.
In reply he looked away and held up a hand, its strange biology a cypher that fell to her first glance. Susan opened her own and placed her insufficient compliment of fingers against the six scars on her arm, watching him accept her findings without attempting to confute them.
“You said to know is always better." William reminded her. "So ask me.”
She rose, cradling her arm, then walked to the door and ascended the stairs alone. In the hearth, a dead branch spat a brand at his bare feet.
A single tree presided over a hole set deep and darkly into the ground, the tortured pistacia leaning away and then back over the spring as though it could bear to neither stay nor leave. Casting little shade, its branches spread like the splayed fingers of a court dancer in a rigid affront to a sky hung with faineant black vultures, their circling shapes pulled around the well that was the dead eye of their orbit.
Nomads had built the little wall around the water and strung the branches with charms of shaggy red homespun in the knowledge of its dominion over their fate. But Kala'amātya's memories of the place had been overtaken by the novel features of catastrophe, so that the votive offerings hung forlorn, like gallows fruit. All around beyond a full day’s ride, a thousand dying animals had gouged the dusty sand where they had thrashed amid their fatal throes, the elegant limbs and necks of horses and great bearded camels frozen in grim arcs against the ground. The bone-white sun had scorched the eldest into sunken, blackened things, nosed and shied from by their living kin on their way toward the spring, but further out into the dunes and seen by no one but the vulture, tethered goats lay transfigured into bloated, fly-blown parodies while their owners decayed in silence in their black tents, insects consigning eggs to their eyes and gaping mouths.
Behind him he could hear the croak of the birds still standing amongst the brittle, wind swept tumuli of feathered corpses, tall white cranes and tawny eagles, their great wings hanging as though broken as they stood panting or began to stagger in flapping circles. The stench of putrefaction boiled around him, its choking weight enough to have prostrated any creature less inured to it. While his red horse brayed and pounded the ground in an affrighted dance he folded the cloth back from his face and put a hand into the icy water, drawing a palmful toward his mouth. There was no bitter scent to warn him; only after he had spat it into the sand did the sly smack of poison flower in his mouth, the barbed, copper-green twist that sparked and faded. The flash of sun-struck metal in the spring recalled him and he reached down to lift the object from the water. It was pierced and hand-chased silver, its pendant elements chiming on a long pin that had once ornamented black hair thickly dressed with white clay. Kala'amātya shook the water from the pin and tucked it deep into his tunic, unwinding the cloth from his head and using it to bind the weightless remains of a dead crane that he gathered from the dust, committing them to his saddle bag and turning his horse toward the mountains that stood witness to the calamity.
Though not yet wholly conscious, Lilian saw the line of sacred peaks flicker and fragment as physical sensation demanded precedence. She looked up into a white ceiling; bringing her hands to her eyes she tried to dismiss the face transposed into flesh as Edward stood at the foot of the bed with a black case in one hand, stayed by her expression. She rolled onto her side and pushed back her hair.
“You were dreaming.” he told her.
“I was fucking sleeping. Had to chug a case of Halcion and then I get dead animals." Her voice was dry and weary. "Your fucking phone’s been off for four days.” Lilian looked over her shoulder as he pushed his case into the tall black chest.
“Work.” he told her finally.
“Yeah... about that.”
Edward sat down in the sabre-legged carver and began to unlace his boots before leaning back to close his eyes for a moment, returning from the hazards of his journey to the rooms around him, in which she was a new and superlative luxury. He braved her frown to watch her slide from the bed and walk into the bathroom and heard the slow roll of the drawer beneath the basin. Lilian pinned up her hair and ran herself a glass of water to speed the passage of the amphetamines she hoped would dispel the heavy, tranquilised mantle rolling like a clutch of bearings in her skull. He pulled his shirt and its smell of other people over his head.
“With all the spooky long haul and radio silence, I figure you’re either an ice mule, professional assassin or international über-whore.” she suggested, folding her arms as she leant on the doorframe. “There’s two ways this can go. You can deal me in... full disclosure... or I can bill you. But you need to make up your fucking mind.”
He leant down and picked up a pile of document bags from the floor beside him.
“When did these come?”
“I don’t know Lamb, they don’t fucking stop coming from your manager.” Unzipping the garment bag that hung from the side of the chest, she shook her head and reached across to lift his wrist and consult his watch. “Bitch Fed-Ex’s crap to the door every three hours.” Lilian plucked a stray thread from the waist of her pencil skirt before stepping into it, the straps of her camisole spilling from her shoulders. “She’s a fucking creepy predator.”
“Aren’t we all?” he murmured.
“We don’t all send dead-eyed throwbacks to tail people when they’re out trying to make a fucking living.”
“You’re being followed?”
“Either yes, or me and my drivers are having exactly the same paranoid delusion. If it was all in my head the douchebags would be better looking. So tell your manager to stop dogging me or I’ll do a three-way with Rachelle on her front lawn.”
“It’s not Orb’s people?”
She barely blinked at the sound of his name.
“He didn’t have any guys. This is Opal trying to run me off.”
The scent of her skin and the fleet glimpse of her back as it disappeared beneath her blouse drew him from the chair while she passed a thin patent belt around the waist of her jacket. He followed her hands with his own and smoothed them down her skirt, pulling it up over her thighs and reaching between them. Lilian lost the silver buckle and closed her eyes, until the temptation to abandon her obligations began to accrue too much momentum.
“Use your phone... send me pictures of them.” he told her. His hand found the black stretch of lace under her breast and pushed beneath it as he walked her to the bed, where she halted and glanced back at him, the hot colours shifting in his gaze speaking so plainly of his intent that she almost failed to pull her blouse closed.
“I have to work, motherfucker." she smiled, buttoning the silk. "United Arab Emirates asshole. He likes shoes, nail polish, karada. Sits, eats dates, watches me tie up his bitches. I know more about him than I do you.” Lilian sighed. “Oh yeah... Susan had a thing on her arm. Said she took a dive off her bike or something but I think she sprained it on your brother’s hard-on. Did you tell him about Orb?"
"Has he said anything to you?"
"Nothing straight up, but he's not stupid."
Edward nodded slowly to himself.
"How long will you be?”
“Guess I'll be back around... three.”
“That’s five hours.” he observed as he sat down in the chair, making her step over his legs in her tight skirt on her way to the door and waiting for the smirk that she turned to him.
“Try four days alone with your own hand, asshole.”
“I just did. So don’t make me come looking for you.”
High over a gigantic canvas spattered with strokes of hot, pernicious green, William hung inverted from a silver lighting truss, knees hooked into the aluminium frame that was itself screwed into a ceiling soaring fifteen metres from a floor of polished concrete. In one hand he held one of the black lanterns to have been installed by a crew of professionals before Opal and Edward’s conflicting demands had seen them walk out of the gallery, three quarters of the way through their commission. In the other he grasped a screwdriver that had proved a poor choice. His brother stood in the midst of the titan annex with a newspaper in his hands. William let a glob of saliva fall to strike the pages with a sound that echoed in the adjoining chambers.
“If I could read German I could probably do this without shorting the whole fucking building, but I can’t, so call those lighting queens and tell them to get their flapping arseholes down here.” he called. Edward did not look up. “Okay, I’ll just wire it in and hope nobody dies.”
“What does it say?”
“Something achtung and... dreiphasig... fuck, I don't know, alright? I’ve got a fight in an hour so can we get on with this shit please?”
"Who's your mark?”
“Some ding-wing skinhead.” William twisted and reached for the other end of the truss, pulling himself up to peer into the sockets. “I'm down to take a dive, but I've had it with these fucking supremacist cocksuckers... I'm going to défoncer his blanc arse in front of all his little bunk bitches.” The gracile structure supporting him emitted dour groans as he repositioned himself to install the orphan lantern. A trickle of white dust sifted from the ceiling through the struts and onto his forehead. "Can I get a fucking wrench up here?" Edward continued to read, moving slowly toward the rack of tools and tossing the implement upward; William swung out to catch it and pinned it to his shoulder with his cheek. He frowned again and squinted down at the central control desk with its snaking multiplicity of cables. “Is it off?”
“If you say so.”
“Go over to the distributors and stick your tongue in one of the holes.”
William hung to glare down at him, hair a medusoid collar to his inverted head. The rig groaned again and began to deform, sagging like a skeletal python under his weight; he cursed, turned to face the loggia set into the distant wall, then let his arms fall and began to swing, gaining momentum while the truss lost another anchor point. It gave way, dragged free of the plaster to depend from its extruded wiring in his absence, and on the ground Edward shifted three steps sideways. In place of the sound of flesh impacting concrete William’s bitter expletives rejoiced in the building’s superb acoustics, not from the loggia, which he had missed, but from the end of another, longer truss directly beneath it. Its lanterns rattled like a tray of glasses in a train car.
“Let go.” Edward directed. His brother's unorthodox, sesquipedalian profanities were amplified as his second vantage began to fail. “I will flip the switch and hit you with the fire hose.”
William untangled his wrist and dropped the remaining distance to the floor, where he made a scowling bee-line for the bar, hissing obscenities as he bumped the door and helped himself to a bottle of gin. Edward tossed his phone at the technician’s cart and turned his back on it.
“I’m out of town until the afternoon before the show. I want you to keep an eye on Frost.”
“What is it this time?”
“She’s being harassed on calls.” Edward admitted.
"If Opal's coming after her it won't be with a fucking feather duster... and where the hell are you going? You were just gone."
William shook his head, grimacing at the mediocre spirit.
"Never thought I'd see Iberian alujha pay someone else to give their cousins twelve-gauge facelifts."
"La vie est un mystère qu’il faut vivre, et non un problème à résoudre.”
“This's why these eurotrash shitlords want to sign you up. Everything they've heard makes you sound like a walking kill room with the social conscience of a block of fucking marzipan. How does it feel to have fascist bloodsuckers coming in their pants over your headshot?"
Edward took the program from a previous exhibition out of his jacket.
“I feel nothing. You’re banned from this show.”
"Look at all the fucks I give."
"From your mood I assume Ms Christabel exhibits taste beyond her years." His observation was greeted with morose silence. "Frost mentioned her arm."
"She put it through a window." William sighed; his companion's stare caused him to stamp the bottle down and glare back at him. "No, she wasn't embracing death trying to escape my fucking advances... yes she's okay, thanks for asking."
"I have a flight to catch. Spit it out."
"I've been on speed dial to come hospitalize Frost's psycho tricks for five years... every time she called I'd think, one night I'm going to turn up thirty seconds too late." William related, lowering his voice instinctively despite their solitude. "Have you thought about being in fucking Toledo when you get the call to come pick up whatever Opal's left of her?"
"Did I not ask you to watch her?" Edward reminded him. His companion pushed a hand over his hair.
"I don't want to see her in a black bag, mahatma. Don't hang a bullseye around her neck then disappear... if you're not going to take it in the face for her, leave her alone. And while we're doing favours, I need you to put Petrouchka up for a while. She’s thinking of coming over.”
“You’re saying that like it’s going to be a problem.” In Edward's silence he could feel the shift of heavy elements that had suffered centuries of relegation, and knew that he could not expect unalloyed delight. “She got bounced from the ceverny mesto by the fucktard gestapo. They took her house and most of her shit, so she’s pretty hard up.”
“That’s what happens when you kick against too many pricks on a greasy pole in front of a hostile crowd.” Edward replied. William capped the bottle and tucked it under his arm as he collected his belongings from the floor.
“Pet doesn’t have a fam or a weapons cache or an eighty-inch reach.” he reminded him, scuffing on his boots as he set off across the gallery. “And how much longer are we going to take shit from vampyres? Quarrel, putain... I will back thee.”
“Tell Petrouchka I don’t want to see teeth.”
“You’re the fucking buddha of compassion.”
“I will be back on Friday.”
From silence the garage was slowly perfused by a low bass cycle as the Jaguar slid into its bay, gold fading to empty silver in its lamps. Susan sat on a kitchen chair before the back wall in a coat of rubbed plum suede, suitcase standing beside her and her mirrored bag strung across her neck. That she had been waiting in the darkness to some purpose was conveyed by the look of resignation she turned from the sight of the car. William killed the motor but remained behind the wheel; she held something small though he could not decide if it were dear to her or deeply reviled.
“I've got a taxi coming." she admitted, voice hollowed by their cavernous surrounds as she glanced down at the object in her grasp. "I tried to leave a note.” Easing herself from the chair, she walked to the car and stood beside his door for a while, taking the time she needed to show him the old photograph curled in her hand. William closed his eyes and lay his head back on the rest, a great black coat of Afghan lamb obscuring his shape amid the darkness of the car's interior. She slid a penlight from her bag and examined the image herself, scouring again what she could see of its faded detail in unconscious earnest. "I wanted to ask... but... I didn't know how."
His silence was amplified by the suite of incidental sounds around them, the small, random remarks from beneath the hood of the car as the engine cooled, her breathing and the soft creak of her coat as she dropped her hand. When he waited too long to oblige her with an attempt at explanation she turned the small light into the car, passing it over his face in her want of any other measure. It burnt the mitigating character from his eyes and struck their strange colours like a match, his pupils closing into slivers of carbon black against the glare. William spoke and pushed open his door too late; she shied from it and backed into the wall, the tools depending from it clattering and swinging against each other.
“Christabel...” he sighed; Susan shook loose from her stare, clutching the bag around her neck as she pressed past the car and ducked beneath the garage door. He called after her again. Out in the garden the driveway seemed to yawn into another version of itself, twice as long and steeply pitched toward the gates that were some newly distant and forbidding station. She stumbled over cobbles that tilted under her boots, streetlight throwing the gates' curlicue shadows out along the dappled ground toward her while the cul de sac waited, glowing vacant, farouche orange beyond the black iron. From the garage William looked on in the knowledge he would have to stop her, stripping his coat from his arms and throwing it down into the car. She glanced over her shoulder at the emergence of his distant shape and broke into a run, cutting across the drive's meander through the overgrown lawn, the crickets falling silent at her tread, sliding on the damp stone once more underfoot and ripping back the chain binding the gates. Though the links flew in a puff of rust she found them padlocked in a circle; throwing them down, she prised the panels apart, ducked her head into the gap and forced her shoulders between them. The burred metal tore at her coat and snagged her hair and she twisted sideways, pinched between the groaning iron, redoubling her frustrated efforts at William's approach. Curlicue shadow overlaid his hueless features and she struggled angrily, dragging her trailing arm out through the uprights.
"Christabel..." he insisted, closing his eyes against her dread as though she had turned it on him like the torch beam. He caught the right side of the gate and braced the left with his boot so that he could extricate her, but Susan threaded her hands through the bars to anchor herself. "You can't run. If you go now, like this, you won't make it into town..." When he worked her left hand free she jerked it backward, slipped out of his grasp and dived onto the grass, where he reached down for her, earning a fierce flurry from her boots.
“Fuck off!” she cried, curling up and punching at him wildly, drawing her knees against her body even as he lifted her so she could not be made to walk, then sliding through his arms toward the ground. He caught her again and held her so she could not strike out and for a moment she grew still, as though acquiescent. “Fucking let go of me." Susan hissed, drawing in her shoulders. He shifted his hold twice in a wincing effort to balance the strength required to retain her against the prospect of cracking her bones, fighting all the while the seismic desire to comply with her demand. A sound escaped her, a growl that rolled into a snarling little shriek, blown white hot by rage despite the fright that pounded through her body and moved her sides like reciprocating machinery. William set her back down on her feet; as he released her, the flash of silver in her hand and the cold burn of a flesh wound struck him as much with surprise as anything else, Susan lurching forward and turning to stare at the plastic handle of the vegetable knife she had planted in his forearm.
It had been driven backward by the impetus of her escape, the olive-green hilt lying close against his skin. William murmured to himself, sitting down on the grass with the arm in his lap then leaning sideways with his eyes closed, reaching into his pants and tossing a key onto the lawn. He nodded at it when she seemed uncomprehending.
"That's the gate. You left your suitcase in the garage... don't go anywhere without it."
"You made me do that!" she shouted, wide-eyed. Her militating stomach forced her hands onto her knees and grasping them, she disgorged at some length onto the grass. He watched her wander on across the yard amid shades of sunken blue endowed by the ascending moon, toward the pale corner of the house, where she struggled out of her coat and turned the garden hose on her face. Water streamed from her chin as she doubled over.
Susan trailed a long shadow as she returned, lifting a hand to shield her gaze from his injury.
"Please, just... pull it out..." she whispered. William used his left hand to slide his wallet from the back of his jeans.
"Take some cash." he sighed. "Find a hotel... go straight to the airport in the morning. Fly home... don't stay in town, and don't go to Opal. If you need more money, I'll get it to you."
He did not spare her the sight of the knife while he worked it from between the long bones of his arm, though he wiped it quickly on the ground in a manner that struck her as oddly, selectively furtive; she dropped to her knees and reached around him, leaning over the arm he used to fend her off. William thwarted her increasingly exasperated inquiry until she sat back and regarded him with a look of reproach, at which he shook his head, unable to refuse, and handed over the knife, watching her grimace at the substance she discovered on the blade. It possessed the telling density and texture of her own blood though it seemed a pale frozen blue, even in the darkness, other, more allochromatic hues suggesting themselves when she turned toward the street light. Susan looked back at him while the cogs of revelation clicked and crawled forward; still on her knees, she beckoned gravely for his wrist and he allowed her to examine the wound. Its punctured margins revealed skin that graded subtly into a flesh that like his blood held no fixed or definite colour, but seemed to alter with the angle of her view like labradorite. She glimpsed silvered articulation and screwed her eyes closed, exclaiming quietly.
Lifting the blood on her hand to her face, she discovered it was the source of the verdant, perfumed notes attending him and thoughtlessly pressed her finger to her lips.
"It's sweet..." she whispered furiously, wiping her mouth on her hand.
"What were you expecting?" he sighed, watching her catch the fifty dollar bills that had flapped from his wallet in the breeze and replace them, slowly and absently. "Finished wigging out?” William ripped up a fistful of lawn and used it to wipe his arm. "I know this is fucked. You don't have to look at me like I'm a velociraptor."
Behind the gates the taxi she had ordered slowed, its lights sweeping through the figured iron and swinging toward them. Susan sat, staring silently, until the driver struck his horn, causing her to start; the impatient summons made little impression and she left the car to roll away without her. In the lawn the crickets raised their courtship ode once more and the darkness settled between them as a patient and conciliating intermediary. A thousand orphaned, severed notions floated in her head like petals shaken from a branch while dew soaked through her dress where it was pressed to the ground by her legs, joining the water that still lingered as a dark stain on her breast. He reached behind himself and took the handgun from the back of his trousers. Her jaw fell at the sight of it.
“It’s a nine... it won’t drop me, but it'll rip me a new one and I hate being shot.” he assured her. Climbing to his feet, William took her hand and set the weapon in it, but Susan let it drop into the turf.
“What are you still doing with this? Throw it away."
“I can’t, it's Ed's. His Glocks are his children. There’s stuff you need to know, and after that... wherever you want to go, I’ll buy your ticket.”
Her dark eyes fell to the weapon, then rose to survey the house.
"If I come in, you have to do as I say. Exactly as I say." He shrugged wearily and she picked up the gun, allowing her rigid, almost gauche grasp of it to ornament her warning. "I mean it... don't touch me, don't try to stop me going... and speak English." William nodded, glancing down at his wound again, and picked up her bag until he saw that she was jealous of its custody and gave it over to her. "Not inside." Susan insisted, nodding away from the porch. "The garage... we can sit in there." Small bats dived from their diurnal roosts within the sagging eaves and fanned out over the garden; she heard the patter of their flightpaths overhead but did not look up, following him closely toward the unlit house. The pistol's weight and small, dull shape dampened the anxiety attending its possession; she stooped beneath the garage door and looked from it to the back of his head, slowing to a halt. “Sit down...” she told him, indicating the chair. He did so, letting his arms rest on his legs.
Susan came forward to stand beside him, a careful, critical absorption slowly submerging her stiffly-held suspicion, untroubled by the creeping stink of the oil infusing the concrete or the hunched shapes of the antiquated mower and grounds equipment sulking in the corners. The streetlight divided their surroundings, its wash of dim sard red lying beneath the floating plane of shadow cast by the garage door. She picked up her torch from beside the car, and standing at his shoulder allowed her hand to select a length of his hair, finding it cool and heavy, like unworked silk, letting it slide between her fingers as she drew it back from his ear and the white length of his neck.
"This could be a dream. I don't feel awake." she confessed.
“It’s adrenaline... you get a spike, then a hole. You’re in the hole.”
“You sound like your brother." She frowned. "Is he your brother?”
“Do you think I would put up with his shit if we weren’t related?” William mumured, surprised by the nature of her reservations. Distraction kept her from challenging the assertion but she took the torch from under her arm and trained its beam on one side of his face, sparing the other when he grimaced slightly. The pupil of his left eye contracted once more in its disquieting fashion and she repeated the process, watching its movement with the passage of the beam until he closed his eyes against it. An idea offered itself suddenly, like something flushed with bioluminescence.
"Are you..." The question almost twisted out of her grasp, its implications pinned beneath a flimsy syllable. "Good?" She grimaced herself, closing her eyes. "As in... good or evil?" He replied with a glance that might have preceded a smile until he saw that she was utterly intent upon his answer.
"Less evil than a snake, slightly more evil than an owl."
"Why are you like this?”
“I don't know, I'm not a scientist. Ed can probably tell you... put a gun on him.”
Almost before he had stopped talking she put a finger to his lips and lifted the uppermost to peer at the row of shell-white teeth behind them, pointed like those of some oceanic predator, marveling at the way in which they became his features so much more than the counterfeit he had always worn. She touched the tip of one tooth, turning her hand and drawing her fingers down over his cheek, discovering which aspect of the sensation pleased her most.
“You don’t have a beard..." she remarked, incredulous. Though they seemed composed of the same elements, he was like a work begun with fidelity as its intent that had wandered into glorious and subversive deviation in the absence of an exemplar. The ear behind which she had pushed his hair was both like and unlike her own, its shallow fluting gently backswept; she picked up his right hand, its supernumerary nature naming her an agent in her own deceit. When she passed her fingers over his nape she found that his hair ended in a narrow little mane shaped like the peak of skin bared so knowingly by geisha. In the wound on his arm no dark, contrasting pigment conveyed uncomfortable carnality, the site impressing no lasting taste of the knife. It had closed almost entirely and referred her to her own arm, which she shook in an attempt to dislodge the sense of surreality still adhering to the scars. Susan murmured, then walked backward, looking behind herself. “Take your clothes off.” she told him quietly. "Everything."
William glanced at her, then leant down to unlace his boots, eager to preserve the small degree of trust he had regained. Rising slowly with the same concern, he pulled his shirt over his head and dropped it onto the chair; her gaze followed his hands, then rose to his face while he unbuckled the belt slung round his dark jeans, using the brilliance of the torch light to shelter her expression as he shed them. There was neither pride nor swagger in his lack of modesty; he wore his own flesh with the ease of something blessed with a form that obliged such tranquility. Nothing of his dissipation was evident in his body, the hard, utile condition formed around his height and spacious structure conveying instead a provocative and almost sinister impression of strength. His ability to consciously reserve this formidable aspect was undone by the torch, its beam erasing all such diminution and bringing him into alignment with his fearsome brother. He was crossed with a scattered wealth of spectral scars and cicatrix, largely faint and faded though densely hatched in places. Lost by day, they were unaccountably evident in darkness, the fading seal of the brutality he had both meted out and borne, like the line that descended his back. She let the pistol fall with her hand. For all the difference and adversity written over him like scripture, to her wondering gaze he was as beautiful as something made to please her, his flesh answering so many tacit notions that they were satisfied before she could name them. Susan spoke again to herself and moved closer, playing the light along his arm and down his side.
"What are these?" she asked, touching a finger to a scar on his waist.
"Wear and tear." He struggled obviously with elaboration, and she closed her eyes, inquiries sabotaged by the rush of physical association and the willow-green smell of his skin, by the acquiescence she had so easily commanded. His voice held the softest qualities of weariness. “I don’t have a birthday or a passport, avai'sahdi, but everything else is pretty much in order." He smiled briefly. "I checked this morning.”
She set the gun on the hood of the car and sat down in the driver's seat, keeping her gaze on the ground while he pulled his clothes back on.
“Lilian... does she...”
“No, and you cannot tell her.”
"How can she not know?" The question answered itself quickly. “Who else does?”
“Others know, but... I’ve only ever sat one other person down and spelt it out, and he had a head start anyway.”
“So... but... why me?”
Frowning slightly at the question, he looked down, buckling his belt.
“You asked me. And I trust you.”
“I just stabbed you." she reminded him, lifting a hand to her face, filled with whelming regret as he sat beside her on the car. As though reversed within reflection he was returned to her as the stranger in the orchard, still nameless and shaded by the pear trees but completed. William reached out and touched his thumb to her lip, drawing it down over her chin in a gesture of tender, reconciling affinity. She felt his hand slide beneath her own, his fingers aligning around hers in an oddly comforting enclosure. His wound had fused into a nacreous souvenir.
"Il niir si'vai'isha." The sound of the words made her look up again. "I am sorry."
"I'm sorry. You shouldn't scare me... I take it badly."
"Don’t leave, Christabel. What would I do?”
“Weren’t you doing it this morning?” she murmured. The alignment of his natural teeth made his smile intensely risqué and threw its clemency awry, but she returned it slowly, still holding his hand.
"You can't leave anyway. You might not believe this now, but I'm really not the worst thing you could run into." he promised.
Susan caught the slim bole of a wilding fir, then William’s arm, using both to negotiate the last stretch of darkness before the crest of the hill overlooking Commoriom Drive. He passed his hand before his mouth, requesting silence, and indicated a small hollow, halfway down the slope amongst the sunbaked scrub beneath them. Standing beside him on a fallen log, she leant out in her effort to perceive what he had attempted to delineate, watching him manually emphasizing its position in the shadow of the cloud-caught moon. Where he could see the long, dark vehicle, the tracks worn into the lank grass by its restless occupants, and the pale little flecks of their discarded cigarettes upon the ground, she could find only the vaguest suggestion of solidity. But when the wind had freed the moon, its cold light crept in a broad front along the road and hillside, stripping out the shadows; the Range Rover was revealed, the reflections in its window glass a hard and telling white. Someone inside the vehicle had lit a cigarette.
"Shit!" she whispered, ducking down despite their seclusion. Susan sat with him beside the log upon the dry pine needles, bringing her knees up to her chest as she frowned to herself. William took a flattened packet from his jeans, gazing into the darkness that had welled around the feet of the surrounding trees, all the questions she would ask him laid out like the down-turned cards of a mnemonic game. She accepted a crooked cigarette, almost relieved to see that he enjoyed no more of a grasp upon their circumstances than she did. “What are they doing?” she asked.
“Yanking their junk while I tackled you on the lawn. Freak police... they would have probably picked you up on your way into town. Governmental."
"I thought you said I was the only one who knew."
"I said you're the only one I've told."
"Then how do they know?" He shrugged. Susan frowned again and glanced back toward the slope, incensed. "You'd think they would have done something to help me, the bastards."
He smiled blackly as he lit his cigarette.
"That's not their job."
At night, beneath a half-made, emblematic moon, Toledo was a crumbling fist of cracked shapes sliding downhill from the slab-flanked Alcazar into its encircling gorge. Street lamps washed its flat facades with desiccated meringue pink and slaked white between caliphal arches and the anxious gothic tracery of Catholic piles. An imposing colonnade kept the face of the old mudéjar palace in a depth of shadow that recalled the umbrage of a bodhi tree; from his seat beneath it in an aged cane chair Edward watched the darkness crawl backward from the moonlight. Behind him in an apartment sectioned from one of the mansion's great arcades, a man and woman began to shout at one another, their fervid accusations transmitted by the door glass between them and the balcony. Their antagonism proved an inadvertent summons to an eager and unwelcome ghost, the melange of living and long dead in its cortege refusing his consigning will.
Another balcony took shape before his eyes, open to the nocturnal sky, couchant balusters of limestone standing unmoved even as white hands grasped their parapet and drew a woman over it, as tall as he and sewn into an open robe gown of insolent, poppy-red silk. She attended to its skirts, brushing them down around herself and putting back her head, touching white fingers to the fortune in heavy pear diamonds at her ears. Their facets threw galaxies against her neck when she turned toward the lanterns, sharing their coldest qualities with her skin; dressers had employed the great length of her black hair in an intricate serpentine arrangement and trimmed it with a host of stars set en tremblant on silver pins. But the bow of powered scarlet painted on her mouth could not prevent it from sliding back in a carcharhinid smirk as her green eyes rolled toward him, or dampen the intent that had drawn her past the dozing guards, through the brief jardin and into the hôtel particulier.
"Kala'amātya... if you would only dance, we might not meet so often." she remarked sourly, referring to the blur of revellers sweeping past the glass behind him. “But I do not wonder that you cannot... on nights such as this, I suspect your dead witch rises from her noyade to torment you.” She pulled her fan from her sleeve and pushed its pearl-trimmed loop over her wrist. “Helaine serves me from her grave.”
Her smirk dimmed a little at the sight of him, his garments of black silk and lustrous oyster satin merging with all that was sleek and cryptic about him, forcing her to content herself with the thought and not the sight of wounds concealed in his last profound.
"I would give much to know what you see when she returns to you... do you feel her, thrashing in the water, knowing she would have begged your help if she could have drawn breath?" The scene resolved as clearly in her mind as his, a woman's bare feet walking the cold stones of a whale-grey square, its scurling crowd struck silent under a leaden sky. Rana shook her head as though brought to some admission out of modesty. "I do own, with all my art I could not have contrived her death if she had not gone to the drudenhaus of her own will... it does not vex me to say that. I questioned her guards in my eagerness to know how she fared. They feared her still and would not tell much... save that she kissed the rack... all the faces of the scum who paid to use her there, blessing those that fucked her in her chains and tore the hair from her head as keepsakes, for they bore no earthly likeness to you.” Lifting her fan, she stroked the length of her own throat. "Did you think that you could love her, Kala'amātya? This is what these creatures crave." she observed. "And did she not ponder where you might have learned such a thing, cutting throats and burning tents?" His taciturnity began to round on her, as it so often did, his shape framed by the doors into the mirror-lined ballroom from which he was preferentially exiled, and she was expressly debarred. "These drabs would do well to rejoice, since you'll have no other... what could be more loathsome than your attentions?”
Edward looked toward her as though the question was the first thing he had heard.
“Ask that of my brother.”
The crowded chamber behind them was full of tintinabulatory laughter and soft plumed fans wielded by its trussed and spangled inmates as birth and fortune pursued each other beneath a ceiling painted with a vining legion of classical famille rose heroes and cavorting beasts. Dancers swept the parquet on painted slippers and buckled kidskin, the men engulfed to their waists by the vast pannier skirts of their companions. William gossiped with an heiress as they quartered the room in each other’s arms.
“Sachiin is mine after all this time and all your great works... though it is my dearest wish that I could poison him and throw him into the sea..." Leaning over the balustrade on an elbow, Rana spat down into the garden. "I would feed his flesh to crabs rather than see him use it to delight another... what might I have done with the world if I had not been so occupied in addressing his impiety?” She turned another smirk on him. "March to Cataya and back once more... beg him to abandon me, and stare until your eyes bleed. He is my creature still."
The sarabande concluded, and the dancers excused themselves from one another, trading compeers or retiring to the shallow rank of spectators lining the walls with their fans beating the flush from their faces. William returned to the corner beside the door, where he lifted the jewelled hand of another girl, clad in a violet coat and gown of iris-blue. Edward turned to consider the scene through the small panes.
“In his devotion he has mistaken Céleste for you, even by the chandelier.” he observed.
“You may no longer distinguish one whore from another but I am able... he dances with the ugly farmer’s daughter. The one called Céleste is consumptive, it is said, though I will make trial of her infirmity." She found the pair in the midst of her promise, eyes bleached to a pale chartreuse by the sight of them. Edward leant against the stone behind him while she choked down rage.
“I doubt Céleste’s consumption." he continued, sliding a silver box from his waistcoat and flipping up a lid worked with a repoussé scene of Dionysus and his feminine retinue, from which he took a taste of opium and clove, voice planed of all inflection by undisguised loathing. "The footmen can give good account of her vigor, though they’re stationed in the gatehouse. She comes to us alone, or en compagnie, some of them more beautiful than she, others not so favoured, but this is Paris, so if they are not handsome, they are learned." Rana cursed the patrician colour of his gaze, its ideal hue lending his judgements an authority she deplored, an irony of which she suspected him perfectly cognizant. "I pay well for what is lavished on Sachiin gratis... as you say, I am neither charming nor dégagé, nor are my tastes." The clawing scent of jasmine climbed the wall, breathed across the balcony by the warm air rising from the stone, and she struck at it with her fan as though it were some corporeal nuisance. "When Céleste has had her fill her friends do willing service, and sometimes their husbands... their maids, the stable hands, the kitchen girls... I cannot rebuke his liberality, since he will have anyone, save you." He smiled, the expression never more mirthless. "And after all this, because you are never far from my thoughts, I send him to the second arondissement with enough money to last the week. Despite my depraved counsel, or because of it, it is to Céleste that he returns... she is pleased enough to have him, and by never striving to command him, she surely does."
He saw his reportage find its mark. She came at him, skirts hissing around her feet like a stirring nest of snakes as she swung her fist at his face and he traded the blow for the advantage it conferred, pinning her to the wall by the doors to keep their altercation private. His grasp on her throat reminded Rana too late of the price of violence against one so grimly versed in it, his hand forcing the side of her face against the stone, detaining her with the impersonal duress he might have applied to any restive animal. He addressed her through his teeth.
"If I still live, it is to teach Sachiin to see you for the nothing that you are... as I am little more myself, I await only the day he no longer pities you. On that morning, I will drag you into the waves and hold you down until you no longer wonder how Helaine fared in the water." he promised.
Framed by the slender astragals beside them, William's paramour responded to his smile by leading him back toward the door where he slid his hands across the satin at her bound waist and she craned to kiss his mouth, using their sudden remove from their acquaintances to enjoy a moment of ardent latitude. A great, serpentine convulsion rolled through Rana's flesh as Edward released her; leaning forward over the wide bloom of her skirt as the crowd shifted and parted them, William's companion laughed and let him go, her train crushed against the door behind her.
Rana smashed her own arms through the panes. The framing splintered as she clutched the sleeves of the girl’s violet gown and dragged her through the wreckage of the door onto the balcony. The noise turned the crowd into salt pillar figures as the girl cried out; her attacker seized her head and dragged it back, fist full of her yellow hair and drew a fat sickle of window glass across the woman’s throat in a grasp that split the flesh of her own cold fingers. Blood jetted thickly at the wall and what remained of the doors, painting them a bright martial red, the colour pouring down over the girl’s powdered breasts and satin stomacher into the deep folds of her skirts. Rana sawed through her throat with a slippery crimson hand, then dropped the glass and forced her white fingers into the wound to rip it wider still.
Swan-like women slumped to the floor, drowning in voluminous, petal-hued moiré as the ballroom echoed with their cries of horror; William threw off the hands that stayed him, leaping the fallen while Rana shed her shoes and picked up her skirts. He caught her bloodied arm and jerked her back over the balustrade, the trembling corpse behind them jostled, slick, limp limbs bruised by careless heels as it was trodden underfoot by a surge of cursing men in their best coats and breeches, drawing their dress weapons and urging William to turn her over. For a moment he kept hold of her, then let her go, watching her slide over the stone and drop into the narrow, shadowed strip of terraced garden. Thinking they could give chase the revellers dashed back into the ballroom and downward through the house while manservants came with a bed sheet of lavender linen to drape the fair corpse, her blood darkening the weave as they transported it past great drifts of senseless beauties.
"Is that enough for you, Sachiin?" Edward asked his brother from the door. William murmured something beneath his breath, and Edward hauled him back, forcing him to gaze down at the slick spilled from the girl’s throat. “Ai’i bahai sahsa’ih si sthi’ani.” he told him, letting him go and striding through the blood into the ballroom. "It is enough for me."
Behind the colonnade, Edward rose from the chair and turned to the tall glass doors, lifting one side on its hinges so as not to disturb the pair behind it. A quietus had followed on the heels of their vociferous and eventually demonstrative passion, and the small frogs in the courtyard pond had raised their creaking voices in salute. Inside, a silver mantle clock ticked too slowly on its neglected movement. Two bodies lay draped over disordered linen on a half-tester bed, its barley-twist pillars ending in proud bulbed finials, almost an allusion to the labours that had exhausted its occupants. They were sprawled in randomized languor, their tanned limbs dark against the chalk-white sheets, the woman formed from dulcet curves and dusk-hued hollows, the young man a study of puissant masculinity with his great browned arms and polished back, broad and thickly-furrowed. He lay face down in the bedclothes; while he did not hear the high whine of the hinges, he knew the drifting smell of an intruder even in the midst of torpor and opened his black eyes.
The white jug on the bedside table toppled to the floor and smashed, knocked by the butt of the shotgun at which he swung and lost, Edward ripping the weapon from his grasp. Flipping it in his hand, he trained its snout on the lycanthrope’s face and punched a tanto blade into the flat of his shoulder, driving it through muscle until it struck the socket and locked the arm immobile. While his victim writhed against the mattress he reached down and shot out the backs of his knees with a pistol, lifting the sheet to keep the spatter from his clothing. On the far side of the bed the girl dropped to the floor and fished with both hands under the mattress, but Edward trained the smoking pistol on her face and she froze again, staring at him.
“No se mueva.” he told her. She complied, until her eyes fell to the bed where her companion strained hopelessly for the knife buried in his back.
“Chinga tu madre!” she hissed, clutching her sheet. "Hijo de puta!” From execrating his intrusion she began a muttered formula aimed at his person.
“Tell her.” Edward instructed his captive. The man lifted his head from the mattress and conveyed that no incantation would prevail upon the stranger; they argued briefly before the girl dragged the sheet free and shuffled toward him at his insistence, wide-eyed with stymied rage. With both occupants secured Edward took out his telephone and snapped a series of brightly flashed pictures of the scene before transmitting them to his client. “Cesaro del Lobos de la Roca... your father wants to talk to you.” he told his victim, setting the appliance down on the bedside table.
“He can go fuck his friends in Praha! And you...” he snarled. “Snake-face bastard... fuck yourself in hell with them... choke like a bitch on their money." Edward stepped back to allow his client to address his son via the speakerphone. When the crippled werewolf began to roar abuse at his father’s cool invective, he took the phone out onto the balcony and requested further instruction from his remote patron.
The lycanthrope’s dualistic vitality yielded so slowly to exsanguination that the entire contents of his veins had soaked the mattress and leaked onto the tiles beneath before his heart and ruined limbs grew still. Lifting the dead creature’s head by its sweat-damp hair, Edward eased the blade in a circle to bisect the tissues of his neck; its razor edge slid between the vertebrae though the skull still did not twist free as easily as most. He allowed the remaining blood to lapse from the required trophy before sealing it into a black zippered bag. Bereft of its handsome terminal, the thickset corpse lay with its back to the ceiling on the sheets beside the bound witch, who had, at the sight of her lover’s desecration, given up her frenzied fight against the ties securing her to the frame. Kohl ran with her tears as Edward took the pistol from the table and walked around the bed with it. He put its snout to the small depression at the base of her skull when she turned her head from him.
“Ándale." she told him, lying still. "You have killed the world for me.”
Though she felt the steel still at her nape, her bitter declaration had pierced his blank surface and flickered in his golden eyes. Fingers flexing on the weapon, Edward knew that he had lost the will required by his employer’s final stipulation. He cut the witch free with hands he scarcely recognised; taking the black bag from the floor, he set it down at the end of the mattress beside the feet of her beloved, insuring that she could commit his sacred entirety to the funerary flames. The woman sat weeping on the bed and the sound pursued him, out onto the balcony and down into the narrow, shadowed strip of terraced garden.
“I never thought I’d get to say this out loud, but if you don’t stop remembering my nakedness I’m going to drive into the back of a catering truck.” William assured his passenger. Susan's involuntary laughter vindicated him immediately.
“You don’t know what I’m thinking!” she exclaimed, reaching down to claim the bottle of vodka in the foot well as the Jaguar slowed into a backed-up lane. “That’s not what it was anyway." she lied, unscrewing the cap. She tried to decide if it was the vehicle or William’s driving that had altered in her estimation, not allowing herself to consider his proximity as the sole source of her distraction. Their association had changed pitch, transmuted from curiosity into the warm, entailing drag of an undertow that pulled ceaselessly toward him, its force augmented by every piece of conversation, private glance and moment that she sat beside him, watching his strange white hand on the gear stick. It seemed disembodied at the end of his sleeve, the dark, shaggy mantle of his black coat suggesting the skin of some alien fruit diametrically at odds with its contents. What she had already seen of those contents in the darkness of the garage returned with disconcerting frequency in spite of her denial, inspiring a smile that she kept toward neighbouring vehicles as they entered the downtown grid. "There is actually something I'm dying to ask you, but I don't know if I should..."
"Who's El Resto del Mundo, and does he wear a mask?” she spluttered as the question broke into a fit of laughter. He ran his tongue over his teeth, gripping the wheel with both hands as he shook his head.
“I’m going to fucking kill Frost.”
“Don’t blame Lilian...” she sighed. “She was only trying to warn me.” Tricolor lights changed over the heads of the pedestrians crowding the corner; they watched her check her eyeliner in her compact mirror then take a long, oblivious draught of vodka, as though she were some spectacle arranged to expedite their boredom. Susan grew conscious of the attention and set the bottle down, but not before someone addressed her from the footpath.
“Hey baby, you wanna suck on something, suck on this shit here!” the stranger recommended, his hand thrust down the front of his red velour pants, to the ebrious amusement of three companions who slapped his shoulders and smirked at her expression, chuckling over the brown paper bags at their chins. William's gaze slid from the tall flame at the end of his cigarette toward the heckler, who lifted his hands and swung them out into a swaggering gesture of contempt. “What, fool? What?” the latter demanded. Before his challenge was concluded William had leapt up onto his seat, across Susan's legs and stood on top of the passenger door with the telescopic baton in his fist, stare full of retinal flash as the offending party stumbled backward into one another. She sat with her arms folded, scowling up at him; he blinked down at her and dropped his arms to his sides in a wordless adjournment, murmuring only as he stepped back over her and sank behind the wheel.
“No mask, then?” Susan inquired dryly.
“Sometimes...” he admitted. “I overreact. Sorry about that.”
"Why didn’t you just blow his head off with your stupid gun?”
“You made me leave it at home.” He smiled at her scowl and took the bottle from her, swigging and then dropping it behind the door panel as they passed a police car. “El Resto wears a patent gimp hood... silver, with lightning bolts. It gives your marks a false sense of security. Frost’s idea.”
They drove south into a more gracious, tree-lined quarter where Georgian columns, artful topiary and wine-coloured awnings imposed an entirely different, but no less insistent atmosphere. Susan watched them slide by with a hand pressed to her frowning forehead as she divined William’s intent.
"You're not trying to take me somewhere nice, are you?" He swung into a private park outside the classical facade of a restaurant infamous for its exclusive policy and she sat unmoving, loath to disembark. “Everyone who works here says the owner is a gobshite and the kitchen's horrible.” she asserted, looking over at him. The valet hesitated at his post then came forward to greet them, reluctance visibly retarding his advance. William intercepted him with a neatly-administered gratuity and held Susan's hand while she untangled her heel from the strap of her handbag. “They won’t let us in...” she whispered, unsuccessfully resisting his attempt to sweep her toward the doorman. “I look like a bag lady and you look like... a gothic wookie.”
“I found this coat at the Hellfire, en fait."
“The Devil probably left it there because it was freaking him out!” she laughed, leaning out from the arm he closed around her waist as though attempting dissociation. “Bondage muppet... let me go! They won't let us in..."
The doorman belied her assertions by admitting them to the foyér, accepting the tip William conveyed without comment. Beyond the guarded portal the décor attempted to preserve the dignity of its antique fundamentals within thickly-lavished luxe, resulting in a stagnant, gold-choked ambiance, oxygen supplanted by gruesome fragrances fuming from the trophy wives and editors awaiting tables. Like stooping falcons they marked the maître d' with dark-ringed stares, subjecting him to their leaden telepathy. The grey-blonde man approached Susan and William in his heavy white shirt as though testing river ice, addressing them in a voice like cold water issued through his nostrils.
“Mr Lamb, I’m afraid we cannot seat you and your guest tonight...”
William interrupted confidentially.
“Let’s skip the shit... this is all Opal La Rue, right?”
The man pursed his lips, turned his back to the other prospective diners and leant from the hip to reply, abandoning his modulation to a low drawl.
“My hands are tied... she says she’s going keep her top shelf clients out of here if you get service.”
“Where’s the owner?”
“Oh he’s in Malibu, trying to dick his ex-wife out of child support.”
“So there’s no real problem...”
“His bitch GF could walk in here at any moment and she is hell in a handbasket before she gets to twisting nutsacks in the kitchen.” the man assured him. William nodded sagely and bestowed another generous token of his appreciation in the act of patting the man's arm. The latter quantified the offering with a quick glance, smiled momentarily and led them into the dining room. “If Opal shows, I can’t have any drama.” he warned, calling in wait staff with a flick of his wrist and seating them toward the rear of the chamber. “You can eat the venison, the pasta won’t hospitalize anybody but the ravioli... not so much. And the amuse-bouche is super cute, but don’t put it in your mouth.”
Susan sat down slowly into her thickly-padded chair. The room wore ponderous doubled drapery and clusters of rotund vintage jardiniers crammed with mounds of coral and ivory peonies; the tables sighed under their lamps and smothering linen, flocked papers and spongy wheaten carpet sealing every surface seamlessly. Against the stew of lukewarm colours William seemed like an artifact transposed from an alternate reality in his narrow black shirt and tie, and she guessed correctly that Lilian had imposed them in an act of promotional sophistry. She brushed the skirt of her melon-pink dress from the sides of her chair, the set of her mouth holding unspoken apprehension. Their waiter appeared at her shoulder.
"Um... can we have vodka, please? A bottle?" she said quietly.
"Perhaps you've seen the wine list, we..."
"I don't really drink wine... just some vodka... whatever you've got thanks. In a carafe." As he retreated she murmured to herself and looked down into her lap, then gazed around the other patrons. For the first time Susan saw the scowls and stares, the half-conscious expressions of suspicion William dragged in his wake, the attention that had followed him to their table outstaying its welcome. “Do you notice people looking anymore?” she whispered, reaching for the carafe when it arrived and pouring for them both. “I think the lady behind you is choking on her breadstick.”
“Not really. I suppose it’s like being a girl and getting used to people staring at your breasts.” he volunteered, downing the glass in one.
“You don’t get used to that.”
"Really? Oh... je vous prie officiellement de m'excuser."
She addressed her own liquor with similar determination. Silence descended as they sat behind their glasses, gazing about themselves and fidgeting; she coughed, surprised to see that he enjoyed no more ease than she did, reminded again of something she had meant to tell him in the car.
"I'm sorry, for what I did with... the um, knife... I'm not the sort of person who goes around stabbing people, usually." Susan leant over the table to convey the verb discreetly. He bowed his own head in reply, keeping his voice low.
"Just so you know for next time, there's an etiquette... anything deeper than the first knuckle and it's two dozen lilies and a cheesecake, minimum, or it's on... blood feud." Her stare persisted beyond the intent of his remark. "Me make joke." he added, at which she sighed; they glanced down at their respective scars, then at each other, the unwitting unison exacerbating their discomfiture. "I'm thinking that at this point we should just get fucked up." he added. They drank together, their smiles returning with the first flush of spiritous relief. "Don't worry about the arm, cloudcheeks... I grabbed you like a crazy gorilla." The vodka's gratifying burn eroded something of the bounds imposed by caution and Susan looked down again into her lap as she composed herself.
"Why don't you have a beard?" The query broke down into a giggle that she was forced to wave away. "Sorry... sorry..."
“I don't need one. See... this is why I don't tell anybody." he sighed. "I don’t know where to start and it all sounds completely fucked when it comes out... I need a montage.”
"Shhh... I can do this..." Susan insisted, waving her laughter away. "How about how old you are? That's an easy one." He hunched his shoulders in a gesture of disinclination. "You must have some idea..."
"I really don't."
"How can you not know?" William looked back at her pensively.
"I couldn't read until the twenties, and I can hardly write my own name now. I can't add up past my fingers and toes."
"Oh for god's sake... so what are you, then? A hundred? Two? If you won't tell me I'll just assume you're... three hundred and twenty six."
William folded his arms across his chest and gave a short cough downward.
"In dog years."
"Reverse dog years..."
"How do you mean dog years? That's one year equals..." Her gaze wandered while she attempted the arithmetic. "No, that would be seven times three hundred and twenty six..."
"Honestly Christabel, my entire life is eighty percent dirt-coloured blur... sitting on a horse waiting to be somewhere else while someone pounds on about banging their cousin at a cherry fair for twenty fucking miles and wondering how sand got in my fucking apple.”
"William, that's a massive lie. So much has happened to you that I can see it poking out your ears. But you're not that old." she assured him, returning to the point that continued to exercise her. "You can't be. You'd be the smartest person in the world."
He brightened suddenly, his relief at her assertion undermining it immediately. Knocking a knife from the table with his elbow, he excused himself and stooped to retrieve it; when he did not immediately reappear she leant out with a frown until a hand snaked from the linen and whipped away the piece of paper on her knees. William reversed and settled back into his chair, spreading her page of notes beside his plate and smiling at the questions she had overwritten and underscored, tucking his hair behind his ear.
"Am I a species?" he laughed. "Do I have children? Putain!"
Susan shaded her gaze with her hand.
"I crossed that one out." she whispered.
"A species? Er... pass. Illegitimi? I've been warned that it's technically possible, but it's all... you know... perihelion, blood sacrifice, and I'm pretty sure I would have spotted someone cutting the head off a buffalo while I was fucking their sister. What?" he laughed. "You asked..."
"No I didn't..."
William studied her script again.
"Did it smell bad?"
"I mean the past! That's what we're told at school. Can I have that back, please?"
"It stank pretty bad, actually... people, baggage trains, clothing... living in a town was like being wedged in a fucking feltbeater’s armpit. It's not like that in the mountains. But soap is good... I was happy to see it." Turning the page over, he selected another inquiry. "Did women really think men were superior?” Susan’s nose wrinkled as he spoke. "Er... I'm not really a man, and when I think about it, I can't say I've ever felt especially appreciated in a god-like fashion by girls... I run with a bad crowd, though." William's hand went to his pocket before he remembered he was not allowed to smoke. "People haven't really changed. Same shit, different d..."
"What about Hitler?" she interjected. His eyes roved slowly until it became clear that he did not understand the question. "I mean... did you see that coming?"
"Oh... yeah. They're all one guy really, the horde-mongers."
"How do you mean?"
"Vertically challenged, romantically declined and fashion-forward. Whenever I see three hundred people dressed the same way, I pack up my shit before the screaming starts. Except with the Xiongnu... the first you ever heard from them was a hundred fucking onion planters bolting past the front gate, closely followed by fifteen thousand mounted archers. But er... what was the question?"
"What it was like to be a girl, before you could vote or get divorced..." she pressed.
"Like being gay these days. Fine til someone stabs you to death while people stand around chanting that you had it coming.” He refilled their glasses. “Everything came down to location... something that was hilarious in one place got you dunked in pitch ten miles down the road." Scratching his chin, he shrugged, looking for some meaningful summary. "You’re lucky you were born... when was it? Yesterday?”
The sound of her laugh relieved him, though he struggled with his tie, loosening the knot against its unaccustomed enclosure.
"You can take it off." Susan grinned.
"I haven't worn one since the fucking boat over here. Frost keeps putting them on me... says I look less feral."
She stowed it in her handbag.
"Where were you coming from?"
"France... lived there on and off for a while, Paris, Gévaudan... hence the parler."
"There aren't that many of you about, are there?"
"Is it that obvious?"
"It's... the way you are, and with your brother. Like there's no one else."
“Well, there's Ed and me... Bede, you met... Nyāti... that’s his better half..." William looked up from his plate as he came to the end of the slender demographic. Her gaze was drawn back to her scars.
"Was this any of them?" she asked, turning her wrist toward him. He took it in his hand and passed a thumb over the pale striations regretfully.
"Honestly, no... I don't know who did that, but when I do, they'll wish they hadn't."
"I don't want more trouble, William, so just... promise me you won't overreact." His difficulty committing to her stipulation prompted her to pick up his hand, transfer it to the carafe and pour for them both once more. Its task complete, she smoothed his fingers out across the linen and employed the vase of flowers to seclude her surreptitious exam. "The first thing I thought to ask was how you ended up like this, because I don't believe you evolved or anything..."
"Christabel, that's a very... somethingist assumption." he complained, wincing faintly as she subjected his digits to a series of arduous mechanical appraisals until she discovered that his nails slid from their beds into thick, hooked curves; they retracted smoothly as she let go and pressed her own hand to her mouth. Their waiter stood clutching a fresh carafe. "Do you want to eat?” William asked. She took up the menu.
“I’ll... I can't um... I'm having trouble thinking..." she admitted. "I'll have the... what is that?” She leant across to point out an item on the list, shifting around the table to sit inside the arm he lifted to accommodate her.
“Three kinds of wild mushrooms in... ah, cream sauce, and some sort of noodle.” he explained, perusing the french terms.
“Is it very big?” she asked the attendant. “I’m really hungry.” Glancing around, she saw to her dismay that baroque presentation took precedence over portion size. “I’ll have whatever that was, and... do you have trifle?”
“Sort of... a cake in a bowl with jam...”
William shared the man's dubious expression.
“We have a very fine Tiramisu.” the waiter offered.
“Is it very...”
“No. It is not very big. But I will tell the patissier of his mistake.” he hissed.
“Tell him how you lost your fucking tip while you’re there.” William mused. “Nasturtiums and figs. Thanks.”
“You want... flowers?”
“On a plate, with figs.”
They watched the man walk, stiff-necked, back to the kitchen with their orders.
“I’m going to get a gob in my pasta.” Susan predicted, glancing over her shoulder; as soon as he was gone she dragged William's hand out from under the table and resumed her examination, singling out his extraneous finger. "Does it have a name?" she asked of it.
"So go on, then..." she urged. "About why you are."
He emptied his glass again.
"I've heard a hundred stories, but I think the oldest is the one I believe... I will tell you some time." Flecks of glitter had fallen from her lids and settled on her lower lashes. Her smile and the inescapable compulsion of her stare forced his gaze toward the ceiling and he rolled his eyes. "When I first left the mountains and went to live in my brother's house, there was a khampa girl there, and she said to me that in Kham, her people knew about us... her grandmother had been a witch and told her how we were created." That he had lowered his voice to preserve discretion caused her to frown over her shoulder at the clatter and susurration from the surrounding tables. "In their stories it was said... before words were written down, all the lands around the Mother Mountains were held by the Nāga... women who wore the black hood and had thrown off all other names for what they were, declaring themselves witches, and feared by everyone who knew the word. They held the highest valleys and lived as self-made queens, treading down the dharma and the rule of princes and the common people as though they were stones to be cracked under their feet..." Slowly, as though lowered by a dial, their neighbours' conversation fell away into a silence that obliged his confidences, adjacent strangers laying down their knives and forks and sitting in abeyance; when he spoke again, the words arranged the shapes of black-swathed women gathered in a vale of nodding poppies, felt-leaved and welkin-blue, the hard grey taste of meltwater pooling in her mouth.
"It was said they commanded the air and flew like great black crows, that they stole the shapes of wolves and tigers and wore them in the darkness... that even the rivers drew back their water at their word, to offer passage. Beasts of the forest took their decrees into the palaces of kings and spoke them with voices they were given for the purpose, so that the prince of Mahājanapadas might be tithed or directed by a bird or spotted deer before his people, and humbled... if any nobleman or priest said words against them, even in their dreams, the Nāga would cause the sky over their land to stare down like the white eye of a demon of the waste, until the crops were scorched and blown like ashes and their children and their animals lay down in the streets and died like fish cast out of water. And in lamenting them, these kings and nobles earned for their dearest kin a white bolt from the sky that cleaved their bodies into smoking ruin."
"And it was said that the pride of these witches were the sadhaka... familiars they had created, to serve as the pillars and ornaments of their art, creatures assembled from three principles... from men, so they had tongues to speak and hands to perform the tasks required... from beasts, for their strength and instinct, and shapes more pleasing to their creators than the common run of man... and from elementals, the spirits of the ice and stone, so they could prosper where no honest creature might, and would stand apart from all else, as is the wont of primal spirits. The Nāgas'magic stood on the shoulders of these creatures, who were tempered against ice and flame, and wise in all that they were told and nothing else."
"At first it was said the Nāga raised them only in the female shape, and were happy to be answered and reflected. But some found in the half the greater promise of the whole, and raised up the male, thinking that with this race of slaves they were inviolate, and pressed their subjects into tenfold penury, caring nothing for their fate. It was this way for so long that none living remembered any dead who could have spoken truly of a time before the Nāga."
"Then, a summer passed without their emissaries appearing in the courts to give the terms of tribute, and the people looked toward the sky in dread... but rain came as it had once done, like a forgiveness, and no word fell on them. From every kingdom, parties travelled into the mountains seeking the will of the Nāga, more frightened than relieved by the silence, but when they came to the great houses of the eldest witches they lay empty, dripping gold, and only a few who might have called themselves Nāga and been believed remained, so reduced in circumstance that many would not credit their story. These women said that once the sadhaka were both male and female they had woken from servitude and deplored their fate... that they destroyed the lore of their creation and those who held it, and had gone away to some unknown place, desiring nothing but themselves. The Nāga fell without their familiars, and were left to scrabble in the ruins of their greatest works, and all around them limped and howled and stumbled the miscreations they had raised with their half-remembered words..."
Stood before the witches' forsaken houses, Susan gazed up at the lintels deeply scored with dread maxims and felt the sun, fierce and unclouded, on the back of her neck, her shadow on the paving stones rendered in the blues of the night sky. Gold charms, couched as grinning demons' faces, hung from the blackened cedar and tilted with the wind, clattering against the wood as though restive at their abandonment. The sound was taken up and replayed, almost uncertainly, by the diners seated around them as they emerged from their hushed, unconscious observance and resumed their meals.
"Those stories are told all over the mountains..." William admitted. "There are a thousand versions, but that one sits in my ears like water and won't go away." Susan picked up her neglected glass and pressed its beaded surface to her cheek, blinking concertedly to clear her head. "I would say more, but I just don't know... it’s been a while since they kicked us through the swing doors. Ed got his buttocks exiled, I went with him... we haven’t phoned in since."
She bit the end from her breadstick with a redoubled frown at the mention of his brother's name.
“He’s got yellow eyes. Yellowy-orange. I always try not to stare, but he sees me seeing them, and I see them even more. And now you can tell me why there was blood all over his clothes. What's wrong with him? Was he abused as a child or something?” Their meals arrived, Susan’s steaming with fragrant cépes, William’s plate unceremoniously stuffed with the brilliant orange blooms that he had requested, three glossy glacé figs standing alongside the mass of flowers. She began to trowel deeply through her pasta in her intoxicated enthusiasm; he watched her shovel huge portions onto her fork, mashing them against the wall of the bowl and lifting them quickly to her mouth before they toppled from the tines, washing the meal down with liberal swigs from her tumbler. Pausing to chew and deliberate, she watched him address his more ethereal repast; he ate each flower with the decorous modesty of a geiko, eyes wandering to hers.
“Is that good?” he inquired. She nodded, and ate another mouthful.
“Delicious. So that’s where all the flowers went... I thought I was going mad. I knew you weren’t bloody macrobiotic.” she scoffed, recalling his original contention. “Is this too minging for you?” she asked of her pasta, drawing it back from him.
“You can’t freak me out with food. You wouldn't believe the things I’ve seen people eat. Do you want to know?" he added without looking up. Her fork slowed in the midst of her plate.
"About your brother?" Susan shook her head and shrugged. "Honestly, I wouldn’t ask, but... I think it might be easier if I knew why he's like that. He's not the sort of person you want to get the wrong end of the stick about.” she confided. He guarded his reply from anyone beyond their short circle of lamplight.
“A lot of it's just another story... it came to me in pieces, from other people. My mother told me he was born under a red-tailed star... a comet, probably... the worst of all signs. It's always amazed me how so much comes down to your birth, when you're the least you'll ever be. Usually the priestesses would have taken him away and that would have been the last anyone saw of him, but... I think now they needed someone to make an example of. You probably weren’t raised by crazed eugenic matriarchal fundamentalists, but I can tell you, they like uniformity. And obedience. A lot. There is a saying that we have... y’li is’thle veh ah’na siith... be always what you are.” William watched her repeat it. “Sounds lovely, but it means you’re supposed to be what someone else has already decided. Fucking everything was set in stone... your name, who you talked to, who you married... everything. We weren't allowed to create, because it’s il'si'sith, against nature, but they would catch my brother drawing pictures in the dirt... we weren't supposed to go into the water because it was sacred, but no one bothered with him so he went off and swam in the lakes. Then the priestesses would find a kala'ashase, a blackthorn tree, cut the summer branches and beat him with them, until he couldn’t stand or speak." Memory raised the faces of the Sthali'sātva as they stood over him, demanding his brother's whereabouts.
"If you don't want to tell me this, I..."
"No... I do. I want you to know, so you don't take it personally. When I was very young he'd walk with me and show me things, animals and plants... I suppose because he had no one else to talk to. But when they started in on him he went quiet, slowly... the words got smaller and further apart, and after a while he stopped talking altogether. One day I realised I couldn't remember the sound of his voice and it scared me, so I went looking for him. I found him sitting on a stone on the side of a hill, after a beating... I knew it was bad from the way he was sitting, as though he'd been cut up and put back the wrong way... and I asked him why he did the things that made everybody hate him. He looked at me, and a sound came out of his mouth... not words... the sound of one animal being eaten by another, something helpless as it died. I was so fucking scared I ran away." His hand spanned the glass before him. "This went on and on, until he even looked different from the rest of us. I knew what they were doing... if you didn't think of him as wrong before he was covered in scars, you did afterward... you couldn't help it. No one used his name. He was just the kala'amātya, the blackthorn orphan, and I was my mother's only son." The gall that coloured his account spilled into his expression and he shook his head, still unwillingly immersed, before looking at her again. "But you can't beat things out of anyone... you beat it into them, and one day the priestesses realised they’d made something that knew more about terrorization than they did. I know it's easy to write my brother off just as something you cross the road to avoid, but you have to give him props for surviving the kind of shit that would've pounded someone else into the ground. That’s what I tell myself when he’s pouring petrol over something I own. But, to cut a long story short, he put it all to good use and now he’s a property-speculating professional assassin.”
Susan choked as she swallowed.
“Oh my god... he’s going to bury me in the garden...”
“Avai’sahdi...” he murmured fondly. “Just promise me you will never, ever tell him that you know. About any of this.”
She stared at him.
“He’s going to know."
"He'd never believe I had the guts to tell you."
“You’re lucky I’m this trolleyed.” she sighed, emitting a small belch into her hands and frowning back at him as he drank the vodka in her glass. Suspicion made a brief return to her demeanour, then dissolved amid the inebriety that allowed her to hear his replies without sliding beneath the weight of them.
“Go back to picturing me naked.” William suggested.
“Will you please stop saying that? I’ve only just gotten your knob out of my head!” she exclaimed, to the dismay of the tables within earshot. "But... so, you're all that's left?"
"Most probably. There are others. Other others. Not like us, more like... what you might expect. More traditional.” He could see that she was not following him and struggled for a some more illustrative proem. "The people who came to the house party, Étienne and Luc... I think Caleb was there, but that’s sort of hazy... anyway... they’re loupgarous.”
She leant over to reply to the pronouncement.
“I don’t know what that is.”
“You know... full moon, empty head, hormonal... itchy... scratchy... furry?” He covered his mouth with his hand and continued. “Werewolves. They get pissed off when you call them that, so don't.” He watched her sit with the term resounding in her head, like a gem plucked from a mosaic, suggestive of the whole and yet hopelessly partial.
“You mean like... what? Changing into things? Really doing it?”
“Really doing it. Fais-moi confiance... there's nothing more real than a simpering tweaker turning into something that wants to fuck your brains out your nose and eat your organs. You don’t er... seem shocked.”
“I just... like the way you say fuck. But no, I’m not really surprised... I sort of always imagined they existed."
"There was a strange man on the bus when I went to middle school, always sitting at the back in a big blue tartan coat, even when it was baking... I used to think he was a werewolf. Or a pedophile. You can be both, I suppose.”
“That’s... amazingly disturbing. But er, whatever you do, don’t use the wuh-word. They’re alujha, in their own language."
"Is it really a curse? That does sound stupid."
William shook his head.
"It's a manly-testicular thing... hereditary. You're born into it. The girls are all witches and they never get fur. It's all very... close, if you know what I mean. En famille."
Susan pulled a face.
“Are they alright? To be around?”
“Well...” His head fell back as he pondered the question. “Depends what you’re used to. They were the first freak friends I ever made, but I wouldn't call them easy. They’re...” William's eyes narrowed as a list of defects suggested themselves. "Twitchy, sneaky... thrifty... cliquey. The old-money families... cartels... none of them would piss on you if you were on fire, so there's a lot of douchebag fund bunnies with yachts and villas. At the other end there's the er, banjo alujha... the ones that drink out of fishbowls and panic on travelators. They're all better company than vampyres, though.”
She shook her head emphatically and tipped vodka down her throat.
"You're having a laugh now. People turning into things, I can believe. It could be genetic or something, and I can deal with that, for some reason... but once you’re dead, that’s end of it. I’ve seen dead bodies... you can’t come back from that.”
"You don’t come back. It’s like Uzbek baggage claim. And don't spout that incrédlité too loudly... you’ll start getting sunset courtesy calls... glossy, slightly soiled brochures. They’re like used car salesmen... show the slightest fucking interest and they’ll jump the chain and before you know it you will absolutely believe the best way to see eternity is from the inside of a dead body.” She looked back at him with an accusing grimace; he smiled at it. “If I was going to curse someone, it would be to condemn them to their own fucking company indefinitely. That’s how it is for vampyres. It’s you and your clothes and your flatlining genitalia et c'est tout." He let his gaze direct hers. “I can see two right now."
"Toupée lizard, twelve o’clock, chulo Rolex... undead. Nine o’clock by the wall... gated community queen, pearls, cashmere. Undead. She probably volunteers at shelters so she can eat homeless kids.” Susan glanced between the nominated pair for as long as she dared, unable to decide if they were innately unappealing or merely victims of his suggestion. His gaze conveyed his enjoyment of her skepticism. “Neckfuckers. Easy to spot once you know how. And they smell like a dead cat on a hot fucking day, but you don’t get the full nosal experience.” He shook his head at her. “You can't just squint away the evil dead, poupée... you have to be careful. You're sucré to them."
"You mean they like short, pudgy spotty girls?" she laughed.
He reached around the table and lifted her handbag, withdrawing her powder compact and holding its mirror so that she could appreciate her own reflection. The lamplit colours of her face stood in solidarity with his assertion.
"Think how you look, to someone who loves only blood." She accepted his suggestion, stare sliding toward him as he sat back. "Vampyre heaven is full of pretty girls and rohypnol daiquiris. You’ve already come this close.” William held his thumb and forefinger together. Her blank look persisted. “Opal’s art thing. She was going to jump you in the cool room.”
Susan’s rebuttal tailed off as the night returned to her in its entirety.
“That was you who knobbled her?” she exclaimed, lowering her voice self-consciously. Her hand slipped down under the linen and squeezed his appreciatively. “Very brave.”
“Orgasmically satisfying... she launders Ed’s income, so she’s got him in this heinous fucking headlock, but, hey... who doesn’t want a bloodsucker swinging from their dewlap?” His bitterness surprised her; she looked again at the people he had pointed out.
“Where are their fangs?”
“They don't have any... their teeth start falling out after a while, and these are just the last to go." he explained, indicating his own cosmetic canines with his tongue. "They have their own dentists. That’s where I get my daywear grille."
"Take it out." she urged, clapping her own teeth together in unconscious anticipation. William sighed and slid the slender veneer from his mouth, at which she smiled delightedly, forced to distract herself by brushing breadcrumbs from her lap.
"Anyway... my vampyre advice is to watch out for PVC-faced space invaders, and if you’re going to pass out somewhere at night, make sure it’s in a dyke bar. Vampyres and witches are like oil and something that’s going to tie oil up and set it on fire and dance naked while it’s burning.”
"Do they not fancy you?"
"Apparently, to a bloodsucker, I'm about as appetising as a giant green banana."
"You talk to them?"
"Er... yeah. They're sort of everywhere." he grinned. "The emergency exit's over there, Christabel, don't worry... but before you lose your shit and flee, can I just say, now that I’ve got this much vodka onboard, that it feels great to tell you this stuff so thanks for listening.”
“I’m too scared to do a runner now.”
“I’m always pessimistic. It helps with... you know... reality.”
“Must be depressing being pessimistic for three hundred and seventy six reverse dog years.” she laughed.
“Meh... the pessimists survived Pompeii. They’re still excavating the positive-thinking types, all crispy in their yoga poses.”
Susan burped gently and covered her mouth, sparing him the sight of its contents.
“Well, I already know that beating the shit out of people for money is what you’re doing at the moment... but what did you do before that for a living?” William rolled his eyes expansively. "It's probably better to tell me while I'm drunk." she added, reaching for her glass; he had surreptitiously placed a nasturtium in it, and the orange flower floated atop the vodka like a thirsty butterfly. She plucked it from the tumbler and consumed it. "You’ve got until the tiramisu to give me some sort of... mission statement about yourself or I’m going home.”
He grimaced in distress at her requirement.
“Mountains... I like mountains. Love them. And bathtubs... you can't take me to a plumbing showroom... if I see anything porcelain and freestanding the blood drains right out of my fucking head. I’m... sort of partially religious. I don’t like to offend elephants. I judge livestock. Sometimes I bite my own toenails. I’m... ambidextrous, double-jointed and built to scale, but erm, ha ha... you knew that already...” he laughed as she scowled.
"You're not a bloody buddhist, are you?"
"No no, hell no... I just can't with that stuff. Enlightenment sounds like something that should happen to teeth." he laughed again. "I'd rather be a prawn or a donkey than a buddha to be totally fucking honest. Why piss away all those saṃsāras humping nothingness when you can blow your porchlight in a crack house and fucking get it over with?"
"A lot of people would say it's not the same thing."
He spread his arms in a theatrical yawn and settled one behind her, letting it slide to the small of her back.
"Well, the sun's going to explode eventually, so why stop at dessert with that adorable drunk stranger?"
"I haven't decided if I'm going to." she replied. The course in question arrived, three times as large as had been served to the other diners, on a giant white plate dressed in crumpled gold leaf and a crisp, outré praline; they stared together at its almost portentous magnificence, and though daunted, Susan picked up her spoon and excised a generous portion. "Were you ever on, with Lilian?"
"No, never. Amis sans avantages." The assurance survived her skeptical amusement; devouring her first taste of the dessert Susan nodded to herself, then took another, frowning conscientiously through the process. With the spoon she picked the gleaming leaf out of the cream and lifted it to his lips in a slightly infernal spirit of inquiry. “You want me to eat gold... and cream? Do you have any idea what could happen if I swallow this?" he asked.
"No." She held it to his mouth with a bright-eyed smile and he relented; still smiling, she slid her legs over his own and shuffled onto his lap, where she felt his hand in the warm crook of her knee. “What does it taste like to you?”
“Like a cow sitting on a throne.”
The other diners began to frown once more toward the sight of them but she abandoned the tiramisu, chuckling while her fingers traced his smooth chin and wandered slowly down his neck, which she kissed, chastely, until her lips parted and her teeth closed on his skin, incited by its inviting texture. It sent a small, galvanic shudder through him.
“Christabel...” he whispered.
“Why do you call me that?”
“Because I fancy you.”
“You fancy everyone.” The hand she dropped out of sight between them descended past his belt, discovering and wandering over the condition her attentions had already begun to rouse.
"Young lady, these are my best pants, and... nom de dieu, if you don't stop that I'm going to have to tip the dry cleaner again." His phone began to vibrate in his back pocket, buzzing through their chair.
“See who it is...”
“She might need you for something.”
“She’ll want me to pick her up.”
“Don’t make her wait...” Susan urged, her arm around his shoulder and her warm breath in his ear. “I should say, though, if we go home now, I definitely will probably sleep with you, because I’m so drunk... so that’s sort of... something. But if I get a taxi, when I wake up I’ll be sober and I might sleep with you later on, but... I don’t know... I might go back to thinking you’re too strange. But I would be sober and... you know... that would be, probably...”
He pulled an anxious face at her wandering proposition.
“Susan... you’re making me choose between ice cream that’s melting right now and ice cream that's on the horizon... that’s what Satan wants you to do... don't encourage him!” She made a series of small, low noises as she resumed her intemperate exploration, and William sighed again. "Frost better be trapped in a lift by radioactive whore-seeking zombies.” he complained, shifting uncomfortably in his seat as he glanced toward the door.
Helping Susan into a taxi and watching it drive her away was an exercise in smiling self control that had almost defeated him when she slid across to make room, giggling and patting the upholstery with a wanton grin. Having watched the vehicle out of sight along the avenue, William attended to his phone, blowing a sigh as he put it to his ear.
“I’m in the car right now.”
“No, hey it’s cool, I met a trick... I’ll meet you out front in an hour.” Lilian assured him, dragging on her cigarette. William rubbed an eye with his free hand, speaking through his teeth.
“I just sent Susan home after she made several lewd offers of her person.”
“Wow... to you?” she laughed. He threw his phone down onto the passenger seat and pulled the Jaguar into a wide U-turn across the avenue, directing it back toward Avalon.
Desultory business at the Black Moth allowed William to collect his thoughts at the bar, though a waitress, bloodless shoulders sagging over her black basque, regarded him from behind it with a hooded and unremitting gaze, as though she were sick with poison. She picked at the sore on her chin while he regarded the row of smeary spirit bottles behind her head. The stale, bone-grey smell of death floated in the dry ice behind him.
“It's all outta two drums. We got light or we got dark.” she advised.
“Light.” he murmured. At the word, Siobhan slid along the counter toward them as though on wheels, smacking red lips together. The plunging V-neck in the creature’s cerise crepe gown revealed the fleshless hollow on either side of its breastbone; ropy black veins, bloated with stolen blood, radiated outward from its pointed sternum over a narrow fan of ribs.
“What ye havin, Lammeh? Jolene here bin keepin ye fuckin whistle wet?” it croaked, glancing at the barmaid as she shuffled off.
“She’s been great, thanks.” said William.
“Ahm trainin her up. She were real fuckin friendleh t’start with but ah durn beat that cornball shit outta her.”
“I need a stiff. Maybe two. No... one.”
“Well, ye know what they fuckin say bout that. Two’s a crowd an three’s a pardy heh heh heh.” Siobhan mopped at the counter top with a filthy rag, squinting at William speculatively. “What c'ndition ye lookin fer?”
“Fresh is best.”
“Ah got a real nahce tow piece ah picked up down th’ fuckin pier... she were good t’go when she were kickin. Bitch durn wriggle lahk a fuckin cut snake. Now, ah aint gonna lie... she’s shop-soiled... still got skin last time ah looked, but.” Smirking at William’s cool reception of its remarks, the vampyre shook its small head in exasperation. “Ye gotta git over all this shit bout not desecratin women, havin feelins fer em, whatever the fuck else keeps ye awake a'night. It aint natural, an they don’t fuckin thank ye.”
“A stockbroker suicide would be great”
“Speakin a killin sprees... where’s ye bad-seed fuckin son of...”
“Ed’s in Spain.”
“S’at so? Wha...”
“Werkin? Werkin out how ta ass-fuck th’ rest a us with them inbred fuckin Cont’nentals, or partin out some critter that don’t need ta fuckin die jest yet... that’s what he’s fuckin all bout, certes...” Siobhan muttered bitterly. “An what a yew doin anent that shit? Nothin. Feedin ye fuckin jungle dick t’ half-wit poontang.”
William stood from his seat and skirted the loose clot of slaves and predators shuffling on the dance floor on his way out.
By the time he had reached the Jaguar his host had effected its own appearance in the dripping green shadows of the fire escape, pushing a geriatric wheel chair weighed down with a bundle swathed in potato sacks and tied tightly at several points with thick hemp string. The vampyre negotiated the potholes and pushed the chair up beside him with an ingratiating smirk as he sat down behind the wheel.
“Whatever it is, it smells like Eid in Zakatal.” he scowled.
“Quit ye fuckin whinin. It’s as good as ah got. That’ll be four hun’ded and a fuckin thank-ye.” the creature grunted, wiping its hands on the sides of its dress. Siobhan was barely half his size, cheated by the grim colonial deprivation of its nativity and bent by the arduous and unrelenting demands of its own corruption. It reached over and loosened one of the hemp ties, tugging back the sacking to expose the cadaver’s arm. “Nice an fuckin tight. Don’t go tellin meh ye aint got no fuckin use fer em... there aint nothing they kint do.” it chuckled, aiming a laborious wink at him.
The vampyre gasped as though winded, sitting down into the cold lap of the corpse and causing the wheelchair to sag on its joints.
“Three seventeh-fahve.” William wound up the window glass against its leering features and brought the ignition wires together. “Three fifteh.” When it was handed two crumpled bills over the window the vampyre hissed and spluttered, enraged. “Ah must look lahk one a ye cock-hungry bitches, cause ye sure tryin ta git meh ov’r a fuckin chair.”
“In the boot is fine.” he told it, remaining where he was while Siobhan humped the wheelchair over the cobbles and tipped its rigid contents onto the ground behind the car, steering its clattering vehicle back toward the club without a backward glance. Cursing, William got out and stuffed the body into the boot himself, slumped back down in the front seat, frowned, and then leapt back out again, brushing himself off in the alleyway in an attempt to disperse the smell from his clothing.
From one of the enormous, slab-like couches crouching in the vastness of the hotel lobby, Lilian gazed out through her own reflection in the glass frontage at the Jaguar parked to the far left of her view. The yellow streetlight rendered it in shadowed orange beside a bill pillar, five cars back from the dark sedan at the centre of her concerns; its male occupants sat in silhouetted profile, smoking periodically and nursing steaming beverages.
Out on the street, she waited at the end of the gold-lettered canopy in her dark suit, short skirt fluttering against her legs in the wind while William pulled up beside her. Across the road the strangers kicked open the doors of their sedan, revealing a police radio glowing in the dashboard as its rear sagged audibly upon deflating tyres. She turned her head away as they drove past.
“Fuck.” she hissed. “I knew it!”
“Relax, I handicapped their shitbox.” he assured her.
“You don’t get it... they’re not cop cops, they’re fucking Vice OGs. Orb never made the drop and now they're after my ass. Are you holding, because right now I will blow you for opiates.” she sighed. He drove them into the waterfront, pulling up in the reboant darkness outside a fire-gutted warehouse.
“I’m out. But I’ll swap you the vodka under the seat for a southpaw handparty.”
She struck the glove compartment impatiently and began delving for narcotics amongst the contents that spilled onto her legs, pausing as she glanced up with a frown.
“What's that smell?” she demanded, looking back through the car, then at William. “Pick up a date?”
“Didn’t they warn you about questions like that in hoe school? And you shanked your dirty pimp in the same place Christabel makes her bready things so climb down off the hygiene horse.”
"Sandwiches." Lilian hissed. "They're called sandwiches! How many fucking times?"
"Okay..." he exclaimed, wide-eyed. "Fils de pute..."
"Your fucking brother told you, didn't he?"
"About Orb? Not really... it just smelled like a pimp died in there and I guessed the rest."
"He was breathing when I left." she asserted grimly.
He watched her drink from the bottle while hulking ship rats frolicked through the fast food wrappers and soggy, carpeting newsprint scattered outside. Lilian was classically endowed in profile, a quality subtly echoed in her wardrobe and comportment, a narrow superficiality upon which she was heavily reliant. That he had known it for so much longer than he had known her was both a comfort and a bane to him, ghostly in the purest sense and beyond all partiality.
“Have you heard from Ed?” he sighed.
“He only leaves voicemails.”
“Well... I have said all along..." They sat in a silence thick with misgivings and abjuration, and he considered handing over the stash of pharmaceuticals in his coat. “And just for the record... the longer you know him, the worse it gets.”
“Why do I have to explain this shit to you?" she murmured. He shrugged; Lilian shook her head, shifting her gaze to the pink graffiti sprayed over the brick before them. "When I was a kid, with my crazy fucking mom and all her drunk-ass pedobear tricks, I always felt like fuck, is this the world? I fucking hated being alive most of my life...” William leant his head against the window and looked back at her. “So here comes your brother, and he’s the fucking evil Jesus. He’s fucked up, and his shit is bad, but...” A spectral version of her smile returned. “He owns forests, in Europe. He speaks languages... he fucking knows everything.”
“Frost, if you’re happy... I’m happy. I just want to hear that you are.”
“Happy's bullshit." Her smile widened slowly. "I love the way he’s so fucking dry all the time, how he just comes in and says like, three words, and half an hour later you get that it was funny. And he’s always right about the weather... which is creepy and hot. That and he never gives a single fuck about what I do. Do you know how great it is to come in at fucking dawn and not even get a look? Nothing matters to him and that’s... I don’t even know what that is. Whatever it is, I like it. I love it.”
Despite her confession, her eyes held a strange, cureless sorrow. William caught the pale ponytail on her shoulder and pulled her across the gap between their seats, planting a kiss upon her forehead. She slumped back when he released her, staring at him, then fished out her compact and examined her brow in the glass.
“What?” he demanded.
“Hazmat sweep.” They sat in their own thoughts for a while. "Fuck her yet?" she added. He let his head fall to the wheel and lay against it. "Oh jesus... what?"
"Don't laugh, you heartless strumpet. She makes me feel like a pillowhumping virgin."
"When you have a god-given talent you know damn well it’s your responsibility to share it with the fucking community.”
“Have you ever tried that on the judge?"
"No, but I will.”
“If you’re not going to give me complimentary executive relief, you’re just part of the problem.”
“Jesus, get her drunk already. Don’t flop it out at the fucking table and you'll be fine. She's already looking to get on it." Lilian sighed. "Crazy bitch."
He scowled at her advice and put the car back in gear.
“I’ve got to swing by the Half Moon on the way home. Would you..." She shook her head as he spoke and tossed her mirror back into her bag.
“I'm not going in, and those diesel bitches will beat the shit out of you for flipping their twinkettes.” Lilian predicted.
“I care nothing for twinkettes.”
“Oh that’s right... Susan’s back home, keeping it hot for you.”
“As much as I’d like to think so, I’m one hundred percent sure Miss Christabel the Absolut princess is unfit for active duty.” William lamented.
Sharing the elderly precinct alongside Avalon with the Black Moth, the Half Moon Bar was situated in a street so dense with ply-boarded bays and alcove doorways that it remained obscure until he was directly upon its unpromising facade. A white veve extended from the doorstep across the footpath, both inviting notation and notice of hostile intent. William skirted round it, stepped into the black space beyond the door and was brushed by a beaded curtain that dusted a glittering deposit on his head and shoulders in a baptismal gesture. He passed a tall shape that had begun life as an oak sapling; the branches had almost disappeared beneath a smothering cowl of gris gris, little effigies of straw and cloth, hex-sewn rags, knotted bones and broken teeth and stiff, bloodsoaked ribbons tied in bows. The saturnine, rubbed-over Deco masculinity of the interior beyond had suffered no refurbishment since its installation, expressed in scuffed black paneling and stepped veneers and the silvered metal trim that bound its tables. Its formality satisfied a clientele diversely feminine and united by the direst dralna practises; through the cigar smoke the cold, unblenching stares of resident bulls and dark-garbed senior femmes, encircled by noviciates and thralls, regarded him unfavourably.
The counter was darkly marbled beneath a garnish of candle-laden horse skulls draped in sable wax. William sought the attention of the tall, rangy girl in a frayed denim cutoff shirt and sheriff’s badge behind it. Her short, dark hair was slicked down from a neat part; she propped her hands on her own side of the bar and assessed him with a gaze framed by a generous constellation of freckles.
“I’m looking for Lydia and Cybelle...” he began. She turned to a girl with a swan-white crop seated on the glass-fronted beer refrigerator, her crimped black tutu stuffed up against the wall behind her; she blew the dust from the silvered nails she had been filing into points. The spiderweb tattoos spanning her neck were in turn encircled by a collar of steel-pronged leather. Her legs swung slowly against the weight of massive platform boots.
“I’m Cybelle, she’s Lydia.” she assured him. “How’d you dodge the ávnr?"
Looking from one to the other, William noticed for the first time that both women wore the same narrow, tattooed insignia on their foreheads, and he blinked past the failing charm that had concealed it. He glanced back toward the door and it's softly clattering curtain.
“Er... yeah, that stuff doesn’t work on me sometimes, it’s...”
“Who sent you?” the blonde demanded, looking to her partner incredulously. He recalled Frederica’s injunction and smiled.
“Tilde said you might be able to help me.”
The women chuckled darkly at his falsehood. Two rows of little black ducks had been inked into the skin of both their forearms; he counted seventeen before the total disappeared beneath Lydia’s sleeve. Cybelle slid down and leant over the bar beside him, lighting a chocolate-papered cigarette from the candles. William placed a roll of bills on the counter.
“I need some practical advice. I...”
“What are you?” the white-haired witch inquired. She eased herself up onto the marble and leant forward on her hands and knees, staring into his eyes with a gaze that darkened as though infused with a staining agent. “Holy freaking crap, you’re threefold...”
“No way.” Lydia avowed, inspecting him more closely. Their exclamations attracted the attention of the senior practitioners at the tables behind him, halting their conversations.
"Damn, you're a threefold fam." Cybelle looked toward Lydia. "A threefold familiar this big, opposable thumbs, verbal fidelity...” she continued, describing his gifts as they occurred to both herself and her proximate colleagues. With eyes like the shadowed orbits of the skull beside her, she lay back on her elbows, blowing a slow chestfull of smoke at the ceiling, the other witches sliding up against the bar on either side to assay him in an eerily similar manner. "I know who he is..." she smirked. "You're Edward Lamb's brother."
“Do you have any Latin?” a newcomer inquired.
“You know he does." another assured her. William sucked in his lower lip.
“Okay, so... I want to banish someone...” he confided.
"Half-inch chain would hold him...” Cybelle suggested, as though arguing with herself against such an expedient. He felt hands sliding along his arms as the figures massing about him sampled the texture of his skin. Lydia squinted critically at him and took a shot of liquor already swaying in its silvery little vessel from beneath the bar, shucking it across the counter at him. The candle flame writhed in its crystalline belly as she butted the glass against his knuckles.
“Beast, you sure you don’t need a job, because to me you look underemployed.” she told him.
“Be all you can be.” her partner agreed, laying one leg over the other and swinging her boot by his ear, its toe lifting the hair from his neck. "Lyddy's solid gold, but I'll let you fill my position."
He shrugged slightly against the intensity of the interest coiling about him, and glanced down at the glass, easing it back toward its purveyor.
“I’ve er, I’ve seen banishing done but I need help with the details..."
The two witches regarded one another with an expression laden with arid sentiment, and Cybelle returned to the beer fridge, shuffling her frilled derriére back against the wall.
“Align the head to the south, run through the whole text, if you fluff a line, repeat it... keep the head south when you put it in the ground. And peg a net over the hole once you’ve patted it down. Don't use lime... it cooks the grass. Too much decomp signature.” Lydia told him.
“Chicken wire.” Cybelle smiled blackly. “Eight by eight foot, stake it down hard. Stops the raccoons. And dogs. That way your neighbours don’t get chunks on their kitchen floor.” The women shared a look that glittered with some private reference.
“It’s all about affinity.” Lydia told him, sucking her stomach in as she poked the cash down into the front of her jeans. “Like commands like.”
“You got like, right?” asked Cybelle, lifting her chin and stroking an itch on the side of her neck. He expressed a curse in his own tongue, throwing the silvery curtain aside and striding out into the street.
William scowled at Lilian from behind the wheel.
“It’s a dead body, alright? I had a ritual in mind, but it turns out I need a female corpse and that's against my religion so I’m back to square one.” he sighed.
“You’re such an asshole.” she told him, bringing her phone to her ear. He overheard his brother’s voice and watched a smile spread across her lips, her lashes falling with the gaze toward the darkness at her feet; for a moment he chided his own revilement of their bond in the face of the private, esoteric happiness it brought her. “He’s back.” she murmured.
William found that Susan had fallen asleep across the end of his bed, snoring irregularly beside the photo album she had pulled from underneath the mattress. She lay slackly on her side with a little stream of drool at the corner of her mouth. In the bathroom he washed the smell of death from his hands and arms before returning to her, sitting down on the edge of the bed to draw her feet into his lap and unbuckle her silver shoes.
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