J U B I L E E
With his attitude of engrossment in his newspaper Edward might have lulled the less familiar observer into believing their entrée to the drawing room had gone unnoticed. Lilian knew better, and said nothing as she set a kitchen chair against the wall, where she sat down with the bowl of crackling cereal that served as both diurnal meals. The afternoon had pushed two broad, glowing arms into the shadowed chamber through the doors; her own indifference to domestic convention allowed her to appreciate the beauty of an empty room, though not, she suspected, to the same extent as her companion. Resting the bowl on her bare thigh she sucked the spoon and returned it to the cereal.
“What's that called... when you can’t think what the fuck you were just doing? Or if you did it? Starts with D.” she asked, her voice echoing slightly.
“Dissociation.” Edward replied. He glanced at her briefly; her small grey T-shirt and brief skirt emphasized the condition she had begun to lose. “It’s associated with insomnia.”
“Did I say I was dissociative?” she muttered. An inquisitive bird rustled high in the chimney spout, the soot dislodged by its sortie dusting the tiles before the empty hearth. “What if you get a dissociative thing, and when you come out of it you’re on the other side of the house, or like... in the garden, and you don’t know what just happened?”
Edward stood largely in the shade of his own body; the pages cast a little of the daylight back toward his features but in profile they were unintelligible, except to Lilian, who saw his gaze shift in a slightly less methodical manner across the text.
"That's bad, right?"
"A number of discreet conditions involve fugue states and somatic passivity. I’m not a psychiatrist.”
“Susan asked me if she should wear the black thing from the store to your show tonight. Your brother's taking her." She leant back in her chair, letting it rest against the wall. "To your show. You know... the one you’re going to.”
“I’m contractually obliged to attend.”
“I’m contractually obliged to split my fucking take-home with local Vice.” When he maintained his silence she tapped the spoon against the edge of the bowl. “You just fucking get along to that thing, Lamb... pat some scrawny ass, suck it in for the paps, make like you're not getting intrusive thoughts about spreader bars. Opal'll love you for it, she’ll book you a whole bunch of gigs just like it and I can go get a real fucking job.”
“You told me you had no intention of ever attending anything like that. You were very specific about it.” Edward reminded her, folding the paper over and dropping it next to the three he had already digested before selecting another.
“Fuck no, I didn’t want to go back then. Now I do.”
“You also said something about loathing everything associated with art.”
“And you gave me the idea that you weren’t a hustling bitch who’d sell my ass out first chance you got.” She regarded him bitterly from her chair. “So when you’re done blowing Opal for one more fucking C note or whatever, ask yourself how flush you feel.”
“I would prefer you stayed here tonight.”
"Are you out of your mind?" Lilian demanded, incredulous. "What am I, your butterface shamefuck? Lock it up til you want to get it wet? Give it to me straight, Lamb, right now, or I swear I’ll be gone when you get back.”
He looked up from his paper.
“It’s not your reputation that keeps me from taking this public. It’s mine.”
With her pale eyes intent on his Lilian sat still for short while, then stood, firing the bowl at the skirting board as she remembered its weight in her hand. On the landing Susan held her tongue as she stalked past and a moment later observed the other party disappearing into the garage, waiting for the sound of Edward’s vehicle to recede along the drive before descending into the passage that led toward his library.
It took a great deal of her courage to brave his private station, its black desk and chair seeming almost to impersonate him in the static, watchful seclusion. The narrow panes of glazing stood aloof; she gazed around herself, rubbing her fingers together before dragging the chair out from behind the desk and setting it carefully before the shelving. At the very edge of her reach one of the small compartments yielded; she took down the closest volume and cradled its heather-brown and half-defeated binding in both hands.
The pages, far more ancient even than its protective shell, revealed the xylographic text and woodcut illustration of an incunabula, the stiff paper shedding pale matter from its ragged edges onto the inside of her wrists. It was a bestiary, peopled with a catalogue of smiling, bright-eyed chimeras, thorny bears, monoceri, purple goats, golden, horned, hybrid panthers and sardonic basilisks, accorded their enduring colours by hand. Scowling at the rubricated Latin she confined herself to a study of the images, though no anthropomorphi stood amongst them, no vampyres or werebeasts nor anything resembling the brothers' own confounding order. On discovering her William stood for a short while in his amusement, then crossed the room behind her on bare feet and breathed a short remark into her ear.
“Certa amittimus dum incerta petimus.”
Susan exclaimed and began to totter, dropping the incunabula. He caught it in a puff of dust.
"Stop doing that!" she hissed, keeping her voice low. As her face regained its colour she ignored his proffered hand, bending at the knees until they were of equal stature to peruse his features from that novel perspective. "One of your eyes is completely different to the other, like you were made from different bits..."
"I think we were." he confessed. She sighed, opening the volume he had handed back to her and flipping speculatively through its pages.
“That is incredibly creepy. What do you think you are, scientifically?”
His expression became dry and weary.
"A rose by any other name, in the dark, still walks in beauty or whatever. I am open to being captured and handled by Sir David Attenborough, but I wouldn’t let anyone else do it.” He smiled again. “Present company excluded.”
“What do you want, then? I’m busy.”
“I don’t know a Philip.”
“My spectacular folicular technician.” He rolled his eyes. “He does hair. Sort of... now, so come on.”
“What’s wrong with my hair? You're hurting my brain. I don’t like arty things... can we not just stay in and watch a movie?”
He took her hand as she stepped down and began to drag her from the room, then along the corridor outside; she muttered to herself as he shepherded her before him up the stairs.
“Pink elastic.” he remarked, abstractly, until she discerned the subject of his observation and slapped her skirt against the back of her legs with both hands, stepping against the wall so that he was forced to precede her. “At least you’re wearing some." he laughed. "I had no such good fortune when you violated my personal sanctity at gunpoint.”
“If I'd known that I would have turned the bloody thing on myself." Susan assured him.
Against her private expectations, Philip the friseur presented as a tall, scrupulously gym-fit man of forty in a fitted, wet-look T-shirt, the limpid black fabric embracing both the barbells in his nipples and the impressive girth of his toast-brown biceps. Wraithlike, sculpted sideburns descended from a fauxhawk of the same pale shade. He awaited them in William’s ensuite bathroom with his kit bags and glossy, transparent apron, the stern centrepiece in a scene of unimpeachable professionalism. Philip smiled for William as he ushered Susan into the chamber, but greeted the latter with an undisguised lack of enthusiasm.
“You know I’m always here for you... why make me regret it?” he sighed in an aside, eyes sliding in Susan’s direction as the latter sat on the edge of the bath. Pushing William down into the kitchen chair he began to draw handfuls of the latter's parti-coloured mane toward himself, bemoaning its amateur modification. “I could put a thousand homosexual hours into this mess and a day later you’d be back to ghetto homefried.” Philip turned to look at Susan accusingly. “Did you do this? Friends don’t let friends go Midnite Madder.”
“She’s completely innocent, and it was Wicked Cherry anyway.” William chewed his finger absently. “Wicked Cherry, Nuclear Red... and okay, maybe there was a drunken Midnite Madder incident.”
“Lucky you're a gruesome freak of nature that grows hair like nothing should.”
Susan looked up at the remark and then at William, who smiled tranquilly.
“Christabel... what do you want done?” he inquired, squinting as his head was bent forward and his hair combed out with a punitive hand.
“I wouldn’t mind a decent haircut.” she murmured, returning Philip’s glance. “If you do those.”
“You know, she sounds like Midnite Madder.” the technician decided. Laying back his head and staring up at him, William succeeded in softening Philip's expression, the capitulation manifested in his handling of the comb. “Speaking of female ruination... I heard someone had to peel that Rachelle Whateley off your slutty sectors in front of a hundred weeping innocents. Why do I now feel the need to scrub myself so intensively?”
“Rumours of my participation are exaggerated.”
“Have you seen her lately? Don’t go looking is all I’ll say...”
“Why?” Susan inquired.
“My god, she’s been on a hyper sci fi bender since this here weaned her off the panty pork.” Philip warmed to his subject, shaking out a black dye cape and laying it carefully over William’s shoulders. “Dickmatized right off the deep end. Opal La Rue’s ready to choke a bitch... all that time she spent corn-feeding that trainwreck... can you imagine? Where was I? Oh yeah... she cut Rachelle’s ass off cold when all the bills came back to her... ice cold. So then Rachelle brings it with the plastic rampage until those camel toes at D&G cut up her last card, in front of everyone...” He winced tightly. “I had to throw her out of Salon Philip, which is a shame... fabulous natural body. Just fabulous. If she dies with that rogue weave on her head I will kill her all over again for going into the light looking like something waxed right off a taint in Reykjavík.” He began to mix up the colourant in a little black bowl. “It’s bad, but it’s epic bad, so you can’t complain.” Susan’s expression contradicted him. "Bitch please... don’t give me some vaginal monologue about how much you love Rachelle... you don’t. That sensation you’re experiencing is pleasure. You love what I just told you. Love it.” Philip assured her. “My sources confirmed she beat down her therapist with a lampstand when he tried to ease up her prescription shit... which I guess downgrades her from troubled heiress to crazy crack whore. Oh the humanity.” With William’s hair wrapped into clingfilm, Philip turned his attention toward Susan, who took the chair and frowned into the mirror. “I know... why don't you just tell me what to do?” he suggested.
Despite the declaration it did not take Philip long to devise the treatment she required, nor did it impair his ability to impart the lurid foibles of his diverse clientele. The timer presiding over William chimed an end to his confinement and he reached in to wrestle with the taps over the bath tub while Susan’s colour was concluded. She frowned again at the distinctive sound of garments being shed onto the tiles.
“Is he taking his clothes off again?” she demanded, bringing a hand up to the side of her face.
“Oh god, won't someone do something?" Philip sighed, shaking his head as he enjoyed the shower curtain's nominal opacity. "So, so nasty."
“Have you finished this?” she sighed, pointing to her own head. Philip shrugged, noncommital, and she ducked out of the bathroom.
Edward had lost count of the vaguely acquainted women that had broken from Opal’s preview party to attempt over-familiar congratulations, the most insistent dressing his clean pallor with itching stains in pink and coral gloss. That braving an early arrival to secure an audience with the artist was a tactic lacking originality became quickly evident, and having expended the advantage to no avail they were left to clutch their drinks and keep their offers open via wretched bouts of hard posing. Opal had selected Edward’s official consort for the evening carefully, burdening him with the daughter of prominent patrons in a salute to their lack of discernment and pecuniary restraint. Leighton Sotherby-Aldrich hovered beside him looking every second of her eighteen years, smelling of her stylist's perfume and the blood that oozed from the margins of her bitten-down fingernails. Her high-school ponytail had been recently amputated and she marked its loss by stroking at its ghostly length before returning the hand to her mouth; she shied at unexpected movement, stretching Edward’s nerves toward the limit of their considerable elasticity. Opal cast several pointed glances toward them, standing before the largest of his paintings wrapped in black, swagged chiffon. Leighton lifted a hand and ripped another strip of saliva-softened fingernail from the raw quick of her thumb.
The tiny silver hand seemed to sweep too slowly around the face of Susan’s watch; she looked up from the earrings laid out between her elbows into the dressing table mirror, popping her jaw. The black straps of her dress kept sliding from her shoulders and she tugged the neckline down to keep them in place, then decided that the result was too revealing, picking up the hairspray can to add another dose of lacquer to the pinned-up style she had already begun to regret. Philip had effected the shade of willow-pattern blue she had requested but the alteration sat uneasily in her reflection. She chose tiny diamond drops and pushed them through her ears.
The bed legs groaned across the floorboards as she dragged them toward the windows, pushing the frame beneath them with her knees and kneeling upon the mattress to lean out over the sill, toward the casement William had patched for her. The breeze sweeping upward from the wall fluttered the thin silk velvet of her dress against her body; with her hand on the latch she held herself in grim, determined stasis until fear lost its grip and fell away, allowing her to gaze down at the ground with a word in praise of her own fortitude. Still smiling, she stooped for her shoes on her way toward the door.
William stood in the hall before the line of picture windows, watching the hot white face of a three-quarter moon through the tallest branches. The solemnity of the suit that he had peculated from his brother's collection surprised her; she stared at it as she walked past him, pausing, then sitting down on the chair that had escaped the disused room. Her reaction perturbed him, persisting as he came to her and knelt to fasten the straps on her shoes, his hands conferring a small cascade of incidental pleasures that distracted her momentarily.
"Like I'm here to collect the body of your great uncle?" he proposed, grimacing slightly. "I don't know about this get up... it's always Halloween for Kala'amātya..."
"Be quiet... I’m trying to think of the word.” she told him. "You look lovely, actually." She lowered her head and her voice together, looking down at her toes as they wriggled in her shoes. "Too lovely." He glanced up but she shook her head with her eyes screwed closed. "I can't... I mean..." She brought her hands to her mouth. "It would be bestiality...wouldn't it?"
“Oh... you mean... oh. If you like...”
“It’s not funny!” Susan insisted, putting out her foot again. “The left one’s still loose.” To her relief the demanded amendment removed his gaze toward the ground. He smoothed the silver-shot stocking down over her ankle, the sensation annulling her rebuttal, and his hands ascended and closed on her velvet-clad rump, drawing it toward him over the seat. The silken lining of her dress slid beneath her as her knees parted wide on either side of him, her protestations falling spineless and propitiated. The sight of him so close made her blood lurch in the darkness of her vessels, flushing through her chest and burning in its empty spaces as though she had held her breath too long.
“Christabel, this is the woods, we are all animals, and that is all there ever is.” he told her, taking her hand and pressing it to the side of his throat, where her fingers settled, sensing the slow, eccentric cadence sounded by the chambers of his heart, a variant of her own, the rhythm that underscored all discourse. He bent to kiss the eider-soft slope of her neck and the warm swell of her cheek, the quiet colour of her eyes disappearing beneath their lids under the influence of his impalpable curare, so subtly narcotic that she wondered if he had been devised by some opprobrious authority to stamp a face on sin. Her hands opened on his shoulders and came together at his nape, bringing his mouth to hers before some conflicting notion intervened. He felt and tasted as he looked, cool and lunar, faintly honeyed, inviting so much more that she forgot herself and wound her arms and legs around him. Opening her eyes, she saw that his were closed, his artlessness chastising her. Susan let him go and sat back slowly.
“We should go...” she smiled, belying her own suggestion by unbuttoning his shirt. “I mean... to this thing...” She wiped her pink gloss gently from his mouth, her own lips parting as her thumb slid between his teeth, exclaiming softly at her own immodesty. "We could... no. We should just go. I think I used too much hairspray.”
“Your hair is making my hair jealous.” William assured her. She glanced down at her cleavage, tugging at the bra that rode too high beneath the velvet and pinched beneath her arms; reaching back, she swore, loosed the catch and shucked it off, pulling it from the neck of her dress and throwing it away along the hall. Susan consulted her reflection in the window pane, then his expression, his wide-eyed, blinking smile mutely applauding the measure.
"Come on." she insisted, striding away down the hall.
Edward watched his phone ring unanswered in his hand, and slid it back into his jacket, feeling his own perverse resolve transforming into a regret of far greater mass. None of the dubious interlopers of his worst expectation had showed their faces, though the night was still emerging from its infancy. Not even the addicts and alcoholics in the invited crowd had begun to exhibit the behaviours for which the small but determined corps of paparazzi loitering outside were patiently waiting, kept from the gallery entrance by an equally dedicated phalanx of security. Leighton Sotherby-Aldrich stared at him like a laboratory monkey sucking on the bars of its cage, her shallow breath drawn past an abolished overbite.
“I’m not allowed any pets but I did have an alpaca... I came home from school last summer and he was gone... no one'll tell me what happened. I asked the maids and they won't say... they know, though...” she murmured, shrinking again inside her gaily-hued, single-shouldered gown. “I guess you’ve never lost anyone you cared about. Some people are lucky. You probably have a really pretty girlfriend waiting for you.” The idea seemed to at once depress and console her.
Lilian stood before the rack that housed her working wardrobe, her black crocodile suitcase lying open on Edward's bed, patient and empty. Together the two objects stood against her intention to decamp and declared it token. Too many of her belongings had found a home for her to effect the cauterised departure of her desires; with both arms she pulled her clothes from the stand and dropped them onto the case, where they slid away amid their plastic garment bags and lay like loose, discarded skins.
The scarlet counterpane was cool beneath her cheek as she knelt and lay her head and shoulders on the bed, reminded of its owner even in an absence still notionally preferable to his presence. The sunless heat and enslaving duress of their engagements mocked her like a scourge, limned in black-lit detail when she closed her eyes. With his voice still in her head her hand pushed down between her legs but found no welcome; so completely had he come to embody physical exaction that the thought of administering it herself had degraded into counterfeit. Her phone flashed again on the beside table, throwing gentian light against the wall, and she turned her face from it, Edward’s tortious resolve, both in refusal and pursuit, heaping stones on her desire to leave and lighting flames under the need to stay.
Seeking a path between the two, she rose and made for William’s rooms. In his black coat she found the turquoise capsules that he had kept from her the night before and turned the heavy garment upside down, shaking it until the thud of his silver zippo and the flutter of a small packet of foil came to rest on the carpet at her feet.
Sweat trickled down the side of Josephine’s neck and behind her ears, heat and blood gathering in the crown of her skull. She hung from the ceiling in the hall of her apartment, arms rolling slowly down as she exhaled, making fists with her toes in their padded black suspension boots. Her midriff twitched, stressed by the vigour of her exertion but she hung a while longer before reaching for the phone on the wall beside her and speed dialing, swinging gently as she caught her breath. Her gaze drifted toward the thrice-deadlocked door at the end of the pale hall.
“Hey, Shaw.” she murmured. "What's up?"
His tone reflected enthusiasm for any interruption to the boredom of his station.
"Not a lot. They took off a while back, so I got the place to myself."
She rolled up and unhooked her boots from the railing.
"Did you get into the house yet?"
"Negative. One's still withholding permission, and I don't want to push it."
She shook her head to herself.
"I don't know how down I'd be with no access. Not with everything we're supposed to be coming back with."
"I never said I was down with it." he replied, holding the phone to his shoulder while he bent to reset one of the monitor units at the foot of the wall.
“Thought you liked the programme.”
“I like it fine when it doesn't kick me out in front of any cross hairs.”
Wiping the sweat from her neck with her towel, Josephine considered his reply for an interval that ran long enough to disperse the smack of impropriety.
“They don't call O’Connor the Expender because he gives a damn.”
“He’s called that?”
“No one told you that before you signed on?” she smirked, pushing the advantage. "You said the house and grounds are clear..." He said nothing, though she could hear him rise and press the phone back to his ear. "Ever thought about black-bagging it?"
"Yeah, I thought about it, but I get mugged at just for sticking to the script around here and..."
"Hey, forget I called. Probably better I fly solo anyway." she interjected.
"They'll pick up any entry..."
"It always looks that way when you don't have too many intrudes under your belt. Like I said, forget I called." Josephine glanced down the hall again while another silence worked its hidden levers.
Shaw looked back at the huge white house.
"You'll need to make it out here in under thirty."
Unused to the single-minded steering wheel, Susan wrestled the Jaguar with both hands into the darkness of a corner parking space, riding the accelerator and edging its nose into a row of bushes before William jerked the handbrake and sat quietly, swallowing a smile.
“Did anybody die?” she demanded; he wisely reserved his response. The expansive carpark was generously-proportioned but poorly lit, the pale blue globes atop their silver poles casting a glow that barely troubled the tarmac. From patting at her hair in the rear view mirror she gazed across the acre of grounds laid out around the gallery complex, clothed in supine vegetation in the two shades of oily grey-green specified by an architect rightly concerned by any vertical challenge to his structural child. “Are you sure this is the right place? It looks like the tinned fruit factory on the way to my Nana’s.”
He chuckled at her observation and sniffed at the breeze.
"Well, I smell brain farts and ulcerating insecurity so we can't be too far off." They turned a frown to one another, possessed of a coinciding disinclination. Susan brushed a spiderweb from his shoulder, then climbed onto her knees, leaning over the console to kiss him again with less haste and more venturesome enterprise, standing her hands on his legs. The sound of footfalls on the tarmac, like deer hooves trotting over ice, caused her to look past him at a face resolving in the darkness over the passenger door.
"Privet, milaya moya. Don’t worry, darlinks. I wait.” it said. The remark was languid and feminine, but its Slavic accent cut the English consonants and tumbled the snarling letter. William leant out to allow the creature to press her lips to each side of his face.
“Susan, Petrouchka Belyaev..." he sighed. "Strange but not a stranger."
The diminutive intruder leant against the vehicle in a high-collared coat of dense red fox, examining Susan with stone-coloured doll’s eyes in a face of startling, dead-white delicacy. Her hair draped her shoulders in heavy, bitter chocolate falls from a part on her right brow; it would have formed a luxurious adjunct to an extraordinary beauty had not some process scoured life from its materials and dosed her grey gaze with nightmarish, autonomic avidity, its staring pupils fixed in that dilated state of her decease. Susan was strangely moved by the sight of such expired loveliness, a counterpoint unto itself in its repulsive allure.
“Ahh... I see... he write to me of you... you are the vila of his every dream, this Susan he fall so much in love with...” Susan’s blush came as much from the creature’s unblinking scrutiny as from the nature of her declaration. Strings of amber lurking about the latter's neck clicked together softly when she moved, the vampyre reading her in an instant. "I would delight to be once more so foolish.”
William shook his head at Susan’s silent inquiry.
“Never tell a five hundred year old devushka anything private.”
“I think your child bride is very well inform.” Petrouchka observed, extending a glove toward him and rolling her fingers expectantly. “You have key? Perhaps... you have car for me?”
“Just the house. You can’t drive it into a river.”
She turned back to Susan.
“You give yourself to monster, in a place for motor vehicle? What did your mother tell you?” William stared at her pointedly, and she stared back, batting her silky lashes and leaning both elbows on the door. “Do you know, kotik, that in his land, the young men are train for century by priestess to please a woman? They don’t teach that at the Sorbonne. Make him take you somewhere nice.”
“You can’t have the car, but I’ve cleared you staying, so as long as you mow some lawns everything should be okay.” Secreting the keys he gave her in her coat, she smirked and slid her hands after them into her unseen pockets. “There is a guard and er... Ed’s cranky concubine.” William counselled.
“Your brother? He have girlfriend? Ni khuya sebe! No, I don’t believe.”
“Believe. And I wouldn’t breathe too hard in her direction... just... don't. There’s a room at the end of the attic. And Pet, there’s some surveillance, so keep it low.”
She clicked her fingers in irritation.
"Vse zayebalo... even here there is trouble?"
As though offering to demonstrate, a long black vintage ambulance roared into the car park in an arc that lurched to a halt nearby, the colour dying in its staring headlights. The rear doors were kicked apart to disgorge a scarcely creditable density of passengers, some already bickering and shoving at each other as their shoes hit the tarmac, complaining as they lit their cigarettes. In the dim light Susan glanced back at Petrouchka, comparing her blank, undifferentiated pallor to that of the new arrivals. The driver slid down from the running board in a vivid fuchsia evening gown that drooped under the weight of its aurora borealis beading and became entangled in its heels, forcing the wearer to double over and hoist the hem, exposing crooked, goatish legs and orange fishnets. The glittering apparition changed course toward the Jaguar upon espying it. Petrouchka turned to examine Siobhan with an air of acute distaste.
“I don’t like this country. Too many troll, not enough bridge.” she muttered.
“There’d be room aplenny if it weren’t fer th’ weight a fuckin paynim trash slidin off a tuna boat ten tahmes a fuckin night... if it aint the spics it’s the fuckin chinks, an if it aint them it’s beet-suckin Russ’in cooter.” The volume of Siobhan’s assertions grew with the creature’s proximity and it nodded from Petrouchka toward William. “Him an ol’ Happy Face don’t need nobody cumberin ‘em on the way t’ flushin the rest a us down the shitter with th’ help a that Opal cunt.” the vampyre urged, leaning over the door to glare at him and then offer a clammy hand to Susan. She made no move to reciprocate. “Huh... ahm espyin fe-male but ah kint hear a fuckin word outta it... ye gotta tell meh what ye do t’git em lahk that, cause mah way hurts th’ fuckin resale value.”
Petrouchka excluded Siobhan from her farewell and disappeared into the darkness that had purveyed her. The impatient mass that spilled from the back of the ambulance dissipated in an analogous manner, setting off across the carpark in their spangled, ironic evening wear, clutching ratted furs, tiaras and bedazzled handbags, save for a few that remained with the vehicle. Siobhan took to leering across the car at Susan once more, then rolling its little black eyes down at William.
“Ah got eyes fer a tight piece a tail... if that’s what they handin round jest fer puttin on th’ fuckin uniform, mebbe ah oughta sign up an take th’ fuckin week off.”
“What’s all this?” William inquired. Siobhan hoiked and looked back over its shoulder; a male passenger in jeans and a red-checked rodeo shirt re-emerged from the vehicle with something long and pale in his right hand, walking past the lamp post toward another bank of cars; Susan recognized him from the bollchu party.
“Mess of us got t’thinkin we might git along t’ Ed’s hoe-wrangle, git ol’ Opal squittin red bubbles heh heh heh. That there’s Caleb...” it told Susan. “He aint too fuckin smart, but ye don’t need Yale fer this shit.” Perceiving Siobhan's commentary, Caleb called in their direction while William returned his brief salute.
"Yeah, I heard that, y' dirty neckfucker. I'll get to you later." the lycanthrope promised.
He strode along the line of vehicles ensconced beneath the down lights, paused before a racing green Mercedes and swung the baseball bat in both hands into its windscreen, stepping back from the car into the darkness at the edge of the vacant bays. The screaming alarm attracted two security guards from the margins of the gallery; they conferred beneath the silver awning for a moment before setting off toward the car park.
"Er, maybe... something about discretion being the better part of something else..." William ventured, exchanging seats with Susan at her behest. She slid down beside the door, peering over it almost unwillingly; behind the guards who stared at the perplexing damage to the Mercedes three figures precipitated from the shadow as though constructed of its motile darkness, each one grasping a long, blunt weapon. She was, for once, entirely grateful for the velocity of their departure.
Shaw met Josephine at the chained gates and flashed the beam from his torch into her face as he worked the lock. Her hair was still damp from the shower and sent an occasional bead of water down the back of her sweatshirt. She handed him a pair of surgical gloves and cuffed bags to slide on over his shoes.
“You got some kind of theory?” he inquired, walking with her down the drive when he had complied with her precautions. The warmth of the day sat in the still air over the grass, not yet displaced by the breeze that left the hills and swept down toward the city around midnight. Josephine found it difficult to reconcile the view from their customary vantage with the actual expanse of house and garden that greeted her in the darkness. Two pairs of boots and a tyre iron lay about the edge of the porch. She stepped over them carefully.
“I was called into a metro lycanthrope census a few years back... so many counters were getting intercepted it was threatening the data. Turned out to be scent recognition of the deuce gear... that's what was tipping them off, so we set up a new protocol. Cold showers prior to dust-off, civilian gear only... you get a thirty minute window before you start to lay down a solid scent trail. The scrubs buy you an hour.” she told him, flexing her hands further into her gloves.
It was only after she had been led along the darkness of the entrance hall, with its beetle-riven oak and the faded tang of lanolin rising from nomad textiles that she gained an appreciation of the atmosphere implied by the building's exterior. They stood in the door of the drawing room while Shaw flipped the lightswitch on and off, looking back at her.
“It’s like that all the way through. No lights, no power. No goddamn chairs, no tables, no TV...” Josephine turned to follow his manual directions. “The housekeeper's in the attic... that’s got juice, but not much else does. So right off the bat there’s a problem trying to keep up with ingress and exits, who’s here, who’s not...” He paused in his dissertation and climbed slowly to the landing where she stood awaiting him. “You smell that?”
"I guess. Something... dopey.” She stared up into the complicated darkness of the second floor, regretting the rustle of her plastic accoutrement. “You sure you counted everyone out?” Shaw gave her a grim smile.
“If that was One or Two they would have been on us in the driveway. The callgirl loves her pharmaceuticals.”
“Maybe One’s keeping her strung out.” she suggested. He shook his head.
"When they’re not in direct conflict, they’re interfacing.” At the head of the stairs they stood and gazed down the hall in both directions, his reference to their subjects’ private proclivities painting deep shades of aversion onto her expression.
“Xenophilia, to me, is... it’s unethical, irresponsible... biologically it's hazardous... I can’t believe anyone would seriously go there.”
“Different strokes. There’s One, and then there’s Two.” he said, indicating the direction of both rooms.
Josephine was first overwhelmed, and then appalled by the confusion of shapes and colour that passed beneath the beam of her companion’s torch inside William’s bedchamber, the room like the tomb of a heretic pharaoh, the air thick with the sweet, spectral scent of incense and petal-dripping lilies, burnt hashish and the final, half-spent notes of womens’ perfume. She fought the urge to place some part of her clothing over her mouth and nose to physically exclude an atmosphere so charged with degenerate opulence, producing a slim camera and taking four frames before retreating, more than happy to exchange it for the unlit hall. Shaw followed her, checking his watch. The glass eyes shining in the heavy beast heads on the ivy-coloured wall reflected her face as a mottled sliver of white. Josephine preceded him to the door of Edward’s rooms, urging him closer.
“Feels shady.” she whispered against the side of his head. He waved her away along the hall, tapping a knock on the door in question before pushing it inward and admitting himself. The time that elapsed while he cleared the room raised the volume of her misgivings; she dropped slowly to one knee to slide the small pistol from her ankle holster, listening closely, but Shaw returned to the doorway and beckoned to her.
An unconscious woman lay on a bed clothed in blood red silk, the bare skin of her legs and midriff glowing dilute blue in the light falling from the window, the deathly shade in keeping with the attitude of senselessness that pinned her right arm beneath her body and doubled her left wrist against the counterpane. Her mouth had taken on a leaden cast, as though some dark fruit had stained her lips. Though Josephine knew her from the surveillance pictures she was surprised to see how little Lilian Frost resembled her stolen likeness. She went immediately to the window and pulled the curtain closed, turning back toward the scene with her camera.
“Hypoxic.” Shaw said quietly, chancing a measure of the woman’s pulse at the back of her ankle. “Opiates.”
“Breathing?” He shrugged. Josephine was careful not to brush Lilian's feet as she bent over her in the darkness, unwinding a narrow sheet of print-lifting adhesive from the roll in her pocket. “If she was cold we could evac the body for an exam... ” she whispered, almost to herself. They looked to one another across the subject of their speculation, standing with hands on hips.
“Her colour’s bad... if you called it in, there’s a good chance she’ll flatline by the time they get here.”
Shaw frowned, unconvinced, and leant out to spread a hand before Lilian’s mouth and nose.
“I don’t like her for a DOA. She’s moving too much air.” He was surprised to see the small compliment of sampling tools that Josephine drew out of her pockets. She backed up and took a full-length shot of Lilian as she lay, stepping away into the bathroom when it caught her attention. The wall cabinet and bath were recorded quickly, as was the contents of the bin beneath the pedestal basin, tipped onto the white tiles and kicked into a small radius. Lilian's contraceptive and menstrual supplies provided little information beyond the obvious; she swept them back into the waste bin and replaced it carefully. On her return to the bedroom she stood beside the woman's legs and readied a silver spatulate instrument, picking up a hand and using it to scrape beneath its fingernails.
"You can't turn that in..." he warned her, the sight of Josephine's purposive efficiency redoubling his misgivings as she clipped a narrow swatch of hair from her subject's head. She glanced up at him, but said nothing, pushing a syringe from its plastic bubble and looking for a suitable site to introduce it. "Jones... I said you can't turn any of this in, so w..."
"I can run it myself." she assured him. "What is it about this that One can't get enough of?" she murmured, pausing in another moment of narrow, critical study of the unconscious stranger. "We watch this sub for four years... it never taps the same girl twice, is rigorous about paying for it, then suddenly..." Her gaze shifted back to Shaw. "Are you sure there's a bond?"
"They're tight. You can't get near her without him being on you like that." he told her, frowning as his attention was called toward the distance. Josephine bent and touched a finger to the back of Lilian's knee, prospecting her veins. "Jones..." he whispered. She did not look up. He hissed her name again, and then a loud, brittle sound turned her back toward him in dismay. Both intruders dropped into a crouch and remained unmoving as it was repeated, two and then three times, its damning volume almost gratuitous.
“What the hell is that?” she hissed in a silent interval. He shook his head at the floorboards, and then lifted his dark eyes to her.
Rachelle shoved the twin partitions inward to the full extent of their heavy chain, both hands wrapped around the iron. Swinging them once more toward herself, she stumbled backward, tripping over her own heels and the gritty surface of the road. A thick, bubbling litany of accusations rang out around the empty cul de sac as she staggered to her feet and kicked at her forgotten handbag, spreading its contents in a tinkling half-circle. Embracing herself, she screamed William’s name three times into the garden through the bars, choking on her own ragged throat. She wore a skin tight, gold-lettered T-shirt and jeans distressed far beyond their original intent, spotted with dark liquid spills and the remains of her last meal; her phone beeped a battery warning and she shuffled over to it, hunting out its silver form and punching autodial repeatedly. The face of the device dazzled her eyes with a charge of reflected brilliance and she looked up into the headlights of a taxi that slowed and rolled to a halt at a discreet distance.
Petrouchka tipped the driver when he wheeled her scarlet suitcase to her side, accepting it from him and directing her gaze along the streak of scorned belongings littering the road to Rachelle’s feet. The taxi receded into a long reverse, leaving them alone together. With her case trundling behind her the vampyre walked toward the gate and took the key to the padlock from the thick plush of her coat. Rachelle's advance was checked by her sudden glance.
“Don’t you know fur is murder?” the wide-eyed woman demanded. “You think you're moving in here? He can’t just do that like I don’t have any fucking rights... I don’t care who you are... he’s going to shit on you like he does... like he does to everybody! That's what you are, don’t you get it? You’re the fucking rebound! I’m the one!”
Her remarks failed to register in the grey gaze of the stranger, who stood looking at her from a latent immobility that reached slowly toward Rachelle and tapped her on the cheek, drawing her closer as though desiring to impart a secret. Bending from the hip, she looked hard into the glossy stare with its curving ring of sable lashes, the black holes in their centres the luring object of her witless quest. When the vampyre spoke, it was with vicious gutturals, and a slick flash of her teeth.
“Go away, piz'da, before something bad happen to you.”
Petrouchka took her time about the gates, locking them again behind herself while the blonde woman uttered belated, incoherent insults. Rachelle watched the vampyre tote her case along the drive and turned back toward the road, her cries of outrage devolving once more into the screaming of William’s name. Her voice rolled out across the seal, past the scarp of wilding trees at the edge of the road and away into the plantation. As if in answer, two huge, bone-coloured moths ghosted out of the branches into the torpid streetlight and began to float in slow, unheeded circles over her head.
The vampyre left her case at the foot of the stairs and shrugged off her coat as she ascended, draping it over her elbow. She peered into each doorway, taking an excursion into Edward’s studio and lifting her smiling white face to the ceiling, before returning to the hallway and traipsing onward, beyond a bank of windows to the little case of wooden steps.
She had not stopped to look into the suite where Lilian lay once more alone in her brumous stupor. For a while she had drifted in the pixelated, cloud-coloured space lying just beneath the surface of awareness, hearing sounds conveyed through air as well as those transmitted by the mattress, discomfort standing on the verge of firing movement through her body. But in her stomach active compounds still bled from jewel-green capsules and turned the slow recovery into a dim false dawn, turning her over in a darkness that was ordered into shape and setting her down upon her feet.
Around them and beneath the coppice wood of leafless, black-boled trees, the first snow lay in low, crisp drifts, glittering like milled salt. When she considered its perfection she regretted the drag of her hooded mantle, though with her companion she tracked a ragged precedent between the coppiced stands that had churned the white to sepia mud and left the smell of stale clothes and sweating desperation in its wake. Her companion took the large, vaguely lunar length of black wood from his back, drawing it over his shoulder. He slid twisted rawhide from his belt and strung the span, transforming the nameless instrument in an act of silent alchemy into the graceful recurved bow that he had carried since his service in the Eastern steppe. Thus configured, it was two thirds as tall as he; she reached out and took it from him, finding herself barely able to draw it from the stiff line it described between the two siyah, her fingers burning with the effort. He selected seven arrows and set them head-first in the snow.
Like a cowhand in a yard stocked with beasts accustomed to her presence, Opal made her way between the ranks of bared and semi-celebrated shoulders, past the shrieking dresses that fought so violently with the drab favoured by midlife creatives, who were themselves strictly demarcated from their younger contemporaries, the latter boneless and scrawny in their entropic knitwear. Their disregard was nectar to her ruling animus, if not quite so gratifying to that portion nourished by supplication. Edward appeared to have slipped the noose she had fashioned from the person of Leighton Sotherby-Aldrich; she found him in a distant corner beneath one of his own monolithic works, standing like a polar animal inside the clothing of the people it had devoured, thrown into blatant contrast by the indifference with which he regarded his own cursory impersonation.
Her bee-line was abruptly severed by Siobhan’s fanged and intersecting smirk as the latter lurched in front of her, dragging Leighton Sotherby-Aldrich toward the ladies’ room by her wrist and cackling like a pantomime witch. Opal turned to scan the crowd again as she stood alongside Edward, their association flagged explicitly by the black, descending strokes of the graphic overhead.
“I think we can do this here.” she began without looking up at him. “I’ve negotiated an offer with the Prague contingent. The first, and last." Anticipating an objection, she tossed her head at the gatecrashers that had flouted what security remained and suffused through the invited guests like an infective agent. "Look at these idiots. Half of them would stab each other before they came at me. None of them would thank you for siding with them if you turned the local reservoir to bourbon for your second miracle.” Opal cracked a smile at a pair of passing benefactors. “In return for your active assistance in implementing domestic policy, you'll receive tithing rights over your local precinct... needless to say, any declarable income will exhibit a robust respectability. I don’t have to tell you about their impeccable track record with snuffling bureaucrats. When you want to stretch your legs I think you’ll find the local hahdris will meet your recreational needs... that kind of acreage is wasted under tin-licking alujha and they won’t be needing howling room where they’re going.” On the other side of the room, a resounding crash set off a ripple of discord, though they could not perceive the nature of the incident from their position against the wall. “Your immediate household will be black-stamped against shrinkage, so you won’t need to fret when your sweetheart wanders away in her underwear. In fact, her days of wandering anywhere without your approval will come to a blessed conclusion... they provide intensive supervision of all junior family members.” Her head turned toward him, though her unblinking gaze remained upon her guests. “Before you convince yourself you’re far too principled to accept, you may as well know you won’t be answering to me, darling. You’ll be directly responsible.” Her anger at the refusal told in his every element proved difficult to conceal, though she held onto it grimly, the effort pinching her face laterally. “Don’t try selling me your not caring either way about your nasty princess. You didn’t keep her home because you like the sound of angry whore. I could go on like a Bond villain about what happens when you sit in your room like a spoilt brat, but if you can’t work it out for yourself, at least you’ll recognize the body parts in your mail box, once they start coming.”
Edward saw the bottle in the hands of the dark-haired witch who had pushed through the crowd toward them and made no move to avoid it as she loosed it at them, his eyes remaining on hers as it crashed into the wall by Opal’s head. Oily red sloe gin ran down the plaster while the dissident spat on the vampyre’s dress, including Edward in her denouncement with the vehemence of her stare.
“E vin yet naat affri ya vech.” she snarled, the words white hot against their skin. Caleb appeared at her shoulder and drew her back into the knot of piping socialites while Edward looked to Opal in his grasp of the ancient anathema.
“She said may you die with your gold still upon you.” he told her. “Pass that on for me.”
Josephine wiped back hair from her face and glanced down at her watch again. Beside her, in the double darkness beneath the elms, Shaw nodded an acknowledgement of her grievance and folded his arms. The long grass stroked their crouching legs, growing damp as the night cooled.
“She’s not going anywhere, she’s high as a kite. Put me out over the wall... my ride’s half a click down the road.”
He shook his head emphatically.
“She’s going to see you and talk about it. She’s winding down. Give it another five.”
“I say you walk me out right past her... I’m your girlfriend, whatever. She's too far gone to care anyway.”
“She’s too damn vocal. She’ll raise hell, and whatever just went in there will come back out again...”
They both hung their heads as Rachelle recommenced her wailing, pressed to the bars of the gate, the keening pitch of her voice carrying it past them into the rear garden.
“Okay... your way.” Shaw conceded. She caught his arm.
“Jesus, did you see that?”
Josephine's gaze returned to the gates and the silhouette of the figure still demonstrating against them, the scene drawn in black and orange.
“There it is... top of the gate, go across the street, come up half a foot... right over her head. Retinal flash.” Shaw saw nothing remarkable until a tiny catch of brighter colour sparked amid the darkness of the trees hunched on the far side of the road. She seized his arm. "It's green. We need to fall back.”
Half-doubtful, Susan watched William sort through the ring of heavy, varied keys in the shadow of the tall red gateway, glancing upward at the features of the terracotta dragon hunched upon its tiled eave. After a moment with the lock he eased the gate forward and admitted her to the walled enclosure beyond.
“I’m not even going to ask how you can do this.” she sighed.
“You buy the keys... a good collection's fucking pricy, but I like to think it’s worth every cent Ed paid for it." He flipped through the various clavicles, reminded of their corresponding venues. "He’s got everything... Lichfield Arboretum, the Merchant Theatre, Modern Art basement access, the Weaver Building, the old library... et voilá, bot gardens...” he added, smiling around himself. “They’ve got a great kaiyu-shiki.”
She stood in the middle of the pebble lane with a bottle hanging from her right hand. The pearly, polished gravel glowed cooly white and clicked softly beneath her feet as she slipped off her shoes. The pale path swept away into an elderly stand of Amur cherries and tiered azaleas, but before them a black pond reposed around a strange, gnarled omphalum of planted stones, occupying the low ground at the foot of a bank of sloping velvet green. A maple stretched its spotted limbs over the grass like blown smoke; its leaves adorned the bank, minikin stellae in flat lacquer red arranged like the night sky that lay in cold, inverse perfection on the water of the pond. Susan stepped over the edge of the path onto the slope, tucking her dress beneath her and sitting down, loosely cross-legged. She handed the bottle to him when he joined her, shedding his jacket and reaching down to pluck the laces from his shoes so that he could shuck his feet free of their detested confines.
“It’s like going to the dentist every fucking day." he admitted.
"God... look at them..." she laughed, leaning over to examine his toes; grimacing, she picked up a little stick, then set it down in a concession to his dignity. “Why don’t you wear... I don’t know... really thick comfortable socks, or something?” She laughed again at the stroke of visible dread the suggestion inspired. William shuddered and took a long draught from the bottle and for a brief empathic moment she experienced the sense of fibrous stricture that so appalled him. “Everything must be so strange to you. Why do you live? You must get so sick of people... we’re everywhere.”
“I do get sick of myself. But... life is only given to you once, at least I always thought that, and I suppose it’s true for most of us... to live is to thank the fairies for all those things they left under the tree for you. When some miserable prick complains about their life we say so thii siith savih is’e... remember how you came by it. Not that it ever shuts anyone up.”
“So many questions.”
“You could at least be flattered that I’ve taken an interest in you.”
“Christabel... your interest is not something I take lightly, and in fact I’m well aware that it’s curiosity more than anything that gets you into my car alone at night, but there’s just something about your questions that makes me feel like I'm the stupidest débile ever to walk around Eurasia with their head up their arse in the last two thousand years.”
“Are you?” she chuckled, raising the bottle to her lips again.
“Why ask me?" he laughed. "One free shot. Come on.”
“What’s the most pr...”
“Merchant of Venice.”
Susan spluttered and wiped at the vodka that disappeared into the neck of her dress.
“Don’t be a dick. Just listen. What I want to know is... what is the most... profound, amazing thing you’ve learnt? About yourself.”
Lying back on the grass, William crossed his arms behind his head, clasping each pointed elbow and regarding the distant stars with a sigh.
“I’ve learnt that I’m a slow learner.” he confessed, turning his head to watch her chuckle at the admission, her hair falling in tendrils over her forehead to curl back toward her nose. Her dress puckered across her belly as she planted an elbow on her knee and rested her chin on her hand, arranging leaves into a circle on the grass before her.
“Do you have a birthday?” He shook his head against the ground. “Do you want one?” Stretching out his arms, he left them on the grass with palms upturned and she smiled at the subtle, persuasive disarmament implicit in their repose. “You can share mine if you like... if you don’t mind being an Aries.”
“I thought you were a Gemini.”
“I lied on the form.”
Susan leant forward and tucked up her dress, rising unsteadily to her feet and walking in a slow ellipse around him with the bottle under her arm, glancing down at his face as she negotiated the deceptive slope. Exhausting her circumscribed route she stepped over him and sat down on his stomach, leaning back against his knees as he drew them up for her. He watched her fumble with the buttons over his navel.
“What's an Aries?” he frowned.
“The ram. Don't ask to be a unicorn."
"I want to be an elephant."
"They never forget."
"I’m glad you have a belly button because I forgot to check." she laughed, tongue tucked into the corner of her mouth as she applied herself to the remainder of his shirt front, opening his collar and laying each half of the garment aside, sitting back to satisfy her gaze, then her desire for all that it enjoyed, her hands passing slowly from his neck to the bright skin of his stomach. “You could be an evil spirit... how do I even know this is your body? You should be much fatter." she sighed. "It's not fair..."
“I keep it tight with lots of booze and cigarettes and three hours of no pilates every day, no excuses.” he assured her. She attempted to work the garment from his arms until she gave it up and leant sideways to kick off her underwear, tossing it away over the grass, supporting herself on both elbows as she toured the peculiar symmetry of his features with her lips and fingers.
“What will I do if I can’t go back to my own kind?”
“You won't need to.”
She shook her head down at his smile.
“You'll regret that when I’m throwing chairs at you and pushing your new slapper down the stairs.” The length of his arms almost frustrated her second attempt to divest them of his shirt, but she tugged it from his wrists and passed her hands over his shoulders, delighted by their acquisition. “I don't have the faintest idea what you like...”
“I like everything.” he sighed, drawing the zip down the back of her dress, the panels falling away from the warmth of her body; she reached up to pull the pins from her hair, the small ruby leaves pressed to her arms where they had lain against the grass. He stroked the pliant length of her spine and the soft width of her hips while she opened his trousers, throwing his belt in the direction taken by her underwear, then bent to kiss him, but he turned his face toward the grass. "Susan... you can't fuck me until you trust me."
“William... that’s not even your name. And I trust you." she promised, leaning her hands on his chest as she availed herself of him slowly, descending into a breathless, senseless pleasure that redoubled as the same submersive luxury enclosed him, pressing his naked back into the grass and closing his eyes. From it he rose and folded his legs beneath her as she closed her own around him, her dress heaped like the smooth pelt of some shape she had discarded in her lap. She looked down into that plain within his gaze on which the secrets roamed, luminous and defiant in their liberty, and closed her arms about his neck. "If you tell me what you’re really called, will I have power over you?”
“I think that horse has bolted.”
Shaw killed the narrow jet of water in his left hand and stowed the pistol in his right, walking the garden hose back to the corner of the house. Taking the torch from between his teeth he played it over the wet drive and into the trees on the far side of the road, scanning them carefully. The sensor in his pocket sounded a discreet warning as a car drove by its station; crossing back over the grass, he unlocked the gate and walked back the panels, watching Edward's sedan slide by him without slowing.
By the time the Jaguar rolled in, the garden birds had already begun to chime from dripping branches in the heron-blue gloom. Shaw remained beneath the elms while William got back into his car and allowed it to ghost further down the drive. Sitting in his lap, Susan kissed him intemperately between smothered laughter, her dress hanging inside out from both elbows; he pushed open the door and pitched forward with her onto the lawn where she exclaimed at the dampness of the grass, cackling as he bore her to the porch. Struggling with the keys while she murmured against his ear, he abandoned the task, returning his mouth to hers and his hands to her body, their embrace once more overtaken by heat and urgency. They left the door ajar behind them in their immodest haste.
Having secured the gates Shaw leant over his torch in a last inspection of the driveway cobbles. The water had soaked away into the lawn, leaving them clean and gleaming and revealing a tangled hank of blonde hair snagged in one of the dark clefts. He took a pen from the pocket of his suit and teased it out from between the stones. A little piece of scalp and glistening fragment of bone caused it to swing from the end of the ball point.
* Read the next Chapter *