R U E
The heat of the afternoon did not intrude into the shade of William’s bedroom, though it glowed in streaks of theravada orange through the drapes drawn back toward the glassed doors by the breeze. The same lazy air conveyed the smell of long grass, working in gentle concert with the sound of running water to excavate her from the depths of repose. Sunlight slanted downward from the hole in the ceiling overhead, dropping a dusty, golden shape onto the floorboards that dimmed slowly with the passing of clouds. Susan lay on her stomach in the midst of the enormous mattress beside a welter of bedclothes almost the same size as her body. It was cool and shaded beneath the canopy and she was not inclined to move, except to slowly advance a leg across the sheet to discover if she was alone. From the door the curtain billowed in and brushed the sole of her foot where it hung from the edge of the bed. The ticking of avian tread upon the boards mentioned the pheasant stalking beneath the bed frame on an inquisitive foray.
The tilt of the mattress roused her a second time, the structures in William's shoulders hissing faintly as they rotated, allowing him to bend and press his lips to either of the half-moon dimples in the small of her back. He lay down on top of her, setting his head in the crook of her neck.
“Get off me or I'll wet the fucking bed.” she groaned, unwilling to relinquish her pellucid monopoly. “My arse feels like a mashed banana.”
He moved his hips against the afflicted region, enjoying its tempting, cushioned amplitude.
"Seems perfectly normal.” he smiled. Susan rolled over beneath him, though she kept her pillow to her face to exclude all possibility of daylight, complaining when he pushed it back over her forehead with his nose. Her dark eyes wore a smoky margin of fugitive mascara. She squeezed them shut, pressing her lips together to contain a smile while he licked her chin.
“You’re not allowed to look at me til half past ten.”
"It’s half past two.”
Glancing at him finally, she reached back for her pillow, sighing through it.
“Why don’t you look all seedy and hungover?”
“I thought that’s how I always looked.”
“You look like a virgin... baby... daisy.” she told him wearily, lifting handfuls of his hair over his head, daylight falling through it in glowing, rose-red fractions. “What are you going to do now there's no icecream on the horizon?” He replied with an indolent kiss, drawing on her tongue then sliding back onto his knees, his mouth dwelling on her breasts, either side of her ribcage and navel in a descent that concluded between her thighs, which lay in careless dissociation.
“I think it starts with C.”
"It should start with F for fatal, because I'm going to have a heart attack if you do that one more time..." She sucked in a breath, feet curling tightly on the sheets as she covered her face with her hands and then lapsed into inertia, his attentions possessing both the private comforts of her own hand and a stranger's unimagined expertise. It took a long while for a distant noise to distract her, intruding intermittently between her whispered exclamations until she opened her eyes. “William..." she murmured. "Something’s overflowing.”
He turned his face against her leg and listened, pondering her enigmatic statement before rising to his feet and hurrying back to the bathtub that had begun to disgorge water onto the white floor tiles.
“Stay in there.” she called, lifting her arms together and laying them back on the mattress as she listened to his immersion, the aqueous notes rippling along the ceiling like reflected sunlight and tipping the balance against her boneless sloth. Slowly she rolled to the edge of the bed, groaning all the way, a quick survey of the floor reminding her that she had left her best underwear in the Japanese garden.
The bathtub barely contained his louche entirety, its water threatening the lip of the enamel; Susan grimaced at her own reflection in the cabinet mirror, sitting down on the edge of the bath at his insistence and warning him sternly against temptation though the water flew up over the tiled wall and slopped onto the floor as the caution was disregarded.
"It's freezing!" she shrieked.
"I know." he laughed, winding his arms about her until she swore softly and grew still, forget-me-not blue bleeding from her hair into the water. Its cool acceptance of her weight began to ease the grainiest aspects of her hangover, and silence settled, her body warming a shallow gradient around her, the surface rising and falling slowly with her breathing. William touched his toe to the spout to prevent the drip intruding on the hollow, peaceful rhythm until she turned to lie with her face against his neck, closing her eyes. "Christabel..." he said quietly, after an interval. "How do you like strange?"
"It's alright." she murmured. Her fingers found and followed the figures on his back, the water an intimate liaison, allowing a new appreciation of the work that was so strange a marriage of art and living flesh. "It tastes nice." she added, contemplative. He felt a question move her before she had drawn the breath to ask it.
“My name is Sachiin.” he confided, smiling at the sound of it in her mouth as she lifted her head, her inability to correctly direct the sinuous vowels drawing her gaze to his and soliciting guidance. “Two syllables is perfectly alright.”
Susan spoke both of his names twice over.
"Which one should I call you?"
"Ça m'est égal. I'm used to both."
"I think you're still William to me." she confessed, growing still again. The pheasant peered through the doorway and strutted over the tiles to sip from the puddle at the foot of the tub, tipping back its head to swallow. "How do you like normal?"
"That wasn't really the word I was thinking of..." he smiled, sucking in a breath as she bit his neck. "It's magnificent..." he added swiftly, squeaking tautly when she reached between his legs.
Chuckling, Susan wrinkled her nose at the sight of the skin puckering the ends of her fingers and tapped her toes against his shins, signaling an impatience that eventually hauled her free of the tub. With a towel tucked around her waist she stood before the basin, pulling out its single drawer and rifling its contents, finding a bundle of strange, pale, withered roots, a bar of clove soap, a silver veterinary implement and a heavy-bladed knife, selecting the first item and holding it beneath her nose.
“Licorice roots.” His reply did nothing to mitigate their mystery. “For cleaning your teeth.” He mimed the action to clarify their mystery. “You chew them.”
William pulled a reluctant face, and she waited, examining the implement herself.
“Orthodontic pliers.” She shuddered and returned them to the drawer. He slid beneath the water briefly, looking back to her as he re-emerged with eyes swept by the action of their glassy haws.
“There's that thing... god, that’s well creepy...” she observed as she bent down at the side of the bath and scrutinized him with a conflicted fascination. His fingers emerged from the water and slid up over the edge to touch her chin in his peculiarly affecting way, a hundred words enfolded in the gesture. "You do look like a Sachiin." she sighed, letting the word slide through her teeth. “And you can start teaching me the rest of it. I hate not knowing when to butt in.”
“You don’t want to go round talking like a hillbilly snakeface Christabel, believe me. We don’t win popularity contests.”
“Really? A lot of people seem to want to do things to you.”
“It’s not the same thing.”
“Well...” she sighed again, looking around. “I can’t deal with the sight of myself for much longer so I think I’ll go back to my room and have a bloody lie in.”
“I’ll come up later and help you move your stuff.”
“Move my stuff where?”
“Here. I’m moving you down here, in there, with me." She set her hands on her hips, and William shrugged. “You just bought the cow, cloudcheeks. You fucked me, now you have to marry me. It’s in the bible... Colostomy ten, verse sixty nine.”
Susan laughed and leant against the door frame.
"I was sort of thinking that I might just want to um... use you for sex?” she suggested. “You only want me down here so I’ll clean up after you.”
“I’ll hire a maid. Know anyone hot?” He laughed at his own drollery. "Poupée... I can do monogamy. I've been practising."
"Monogamy reminds me of mahogany which reminds me of sideboards which reminds me of shrimp paste sandwiches and lollies stuck together in a bowl." she smiled. "And promising never to have sex with anything else ever again is the easiest thing in the world after fucking your brains out for twelve solid hours... my brains are as fucked as the rest of me, and yours probably are too, so it's not really the time to be talking about it."
"You're not... into exclusivity?"
She folded her arms in reply to his diffidence.
"William, you're a slapper. I don't actually mind that... it's sort of part of your charm, and I don't want to be the girl who bottles you in nightclubs because you've got your tongue stuck in something else."
"I think we should keep it biblical." he asserted, examining a thumbnail.
"How about don't ask, don't tell?"
"Biblical. For now. We'll review the policy going forward." She rolled around the doorframe into the bedroom. “You’re losing precious packing time.” he called after her. Susan marched to the bed and flung herself down, dragging the sheet over her head.
On leaving the bath he discovered a fresh article of clothing and crossed the hall to Edward’s room, where he padded past the bed and whipped back the curtain. Lilian lavished bitter curses on his person and rolled away from the window, curling up beneath the counterpane. William stooped, peeled the piece of blackened tinfoil from his damp foot and sat on the side of the bed.
“Drugs are bad, mmmokay?” he told her.
“What the fuck. You better be wearing clothes..." she groaned.
“I’m so far ahead of you it’s practically futuristic.” He indicated his jeans with a lush wave of his hand. “Frosty, if Ed was my boyfriend I’d probably want to kill myself too, but I wouldn’t do it playing ghetto roulette with other people's delicious morphine. Just ask him for a payrise... he’ll dig a nice big hole for your body and everything.”
“Christ... will you just get the fuck away from me? I’ll pay you.”
“Does he know about this foolishness, or are you still blanking each other on the stairs?”
She emerged slowly from beneath the quilt and reached for his cigarette.
“He knows. He came home last night, rolled my ass into recovery position and everything. I kept thinking there’d be a screwdriver sticking out of the back of his head. I wasn’t trying to do myself... I was trying to get some fucking sleep.” Something about the way he was composed, like a smiling Madonna, prompted Lilian to sit up, frowning at his complaisance. She pushed back her hair and kicked him through the bedclothes until a likely cause presented itself and she sighed, leaning back against the wall. “Don’t just fucking sit there, drop the dime. Was she conscious?”
“She nailed my arse to the wall. Like a tiger.” he laughed, running his tongue over his teeth. Lilian shaded her eyes from the window as she considered her companion’s felicity and the small things that had so contented him.
“All those dirty ways..." she murmured. "She’s gonna smack them out of you.” He shrugged, picking at a fraying thread on his knee, and her stare narrowed. "She already hit you with the slut kryptonite, didn't she? Oh baby, I don't wanna shut you down, just don't bring it home." Lilian laughed. "Your fucking brother does me that way, and you can't unhear that shit. Before you know it, you're turning down total strangers and coming home early with takeout."
William smiled faintly to himself.
“For her, anything. I don’t care.”
She shoved him with her foot and he rolled slowly sideways.
Susan stepped back into his room on hearing someone ascend the stairs, thinking that she would wait, in the interests of discretion, until Edward had returned to his suite. She counted to ten and walked out into the hall, dragging the dress up over her shoulders with her free hand, but to her dismay he stood at the head of the stairs with a paper, dressed with uncharacteristic informality. His gaze descended to the scars upon her bare arm, and she pressed past him quickly, glancing back to find that his frown had followed her in an unsettlingly owlish manner. Edward’s expression darkened again at the sight of his brother’s garrulous communion with Lilian. He unfurled the newspaper and tossed it down onto the bed.
“Why is the housekeeper fleeing your burrow in a welter of shame and confusion? And you will respect the rhetorical nature of that inquiry.” he muttered while Lilian cast an eye over the front page. She preempted his explanation with a string of incredulous obscenities.
“Fuck me, you got lucky like you would not believe last night.” she told William darkly, turning the paper toward him. “Someone eighty-sixed your hosebeast. And took a picture so it’d last longer.”
William’s eyes had always disassembled halftone images into their tiny composite elements, making it difficult to perceive their content at a glance, and he took a while to put the shaded pieces of the cover shot together. Rachelle Whateley’s naked back was ringed by floating bottles and plastic shopping bags in a stagnant oxbow of the city river, pendant arms and legs blurring away into the drab green depths beneath it, long hair lapping at its shoulders in a loose, stained tangle, as though she had been dropped out of a black sky. The text beneath eschewed detail of her injuries in deference to her influential connections and satisfied itself instead in flensing local law enforcement for their ineptitude. He could find no consoling finality in the wretched spectacle, recognizing far too many of its jagged little aspects. Lilian scanned the article, shaking her head at the triteness of its speculation.
“Here’s me hoping you were gonna make her chain-fight your new piece.” she muttered. “Check it out... they’re trying to make this fit that freak who drains pier girls... fucking morons."
Edward subjected the picture of Rachelle's body to a dispassionate examination from his remote vantage, its empty flesh reminding him obliquely of Hindu conflagrations, of the chants and screams of widows and the smoke rolling from the low, sooty pyres with their oily orange flames and stench and suffocating black heat. He felt the weight of a horsehair swat in his left hand, and heard the infernal whine of fat, sanguine blowflies.
“I’m only going to ask once if anyone here has anything to say about this.” he informed them. Lilian shook her head.
“Faceplant... ladyland.” she mused, manually referring to herself and her preoccupied companion. “If I’d done Rachelle, I’d be on the horn with a voice mod, skullfucking those Homicide douchebags with my batshit manifesto.”
“I was with Christabel all night.” William agreed. “We never saw her.”
“Think that’s gonna stop them taking a run at you for this?”
The trio exchanged looks of varying type and intensity until William broke the silence.
“I was with Susan, you two were here... it happened in the city so... none of us are good for it. Let’s just leave it alone. Maybe she’ll rest in peace.” he suggested. “Hey, you’re reviewed...” he told his brother as he took up the paper and folded it in two. “At the... blah blah... Lamb’s forté is clearly the drama inherent in the purest visual mechanisms, the vexed, penetrative anatomy of act and consequence, his savage chromatic vocabulary underscoring the lack of human scale, of comforting textures, these things excluded as if they do not exist for him. Jesus fucking wept... These troubling decisions inform our reactions without delineating new perceptive boundaries; they are an introversive commentary, leaving us to negotiate with our own collective absenteeism, the tragedy of our commodification. His works hang like a judgement on the walls of the Aldrich Gallery, shrewdly juxtapositioned against its language of excess, a token of reform conspiring with the vernacular, using... blahdy blah blah... He insists where others intimate, and many will find this certainty, this overtness challenging, even unacceptable, and for that, perhaps, we should be grateful... there's more, but I just can't. I think you have great success, but I’m not sure. I think I’m going with dramatic absentee textural clusterfuck. What the putain is introversive commentary and how do I tell if it's happening?" He looked to Lilian.
“They’re totally skinning their dicks on your awesomeness.” she told Edward, who smiled back at her sarcasm.
“There’s something here just beside all that awesomeness about the Aldrich Gallery getting smashed up by gatecrashers who then er... battled police, and set fire to vehicles outside the building...” William leant over the paper, squinting as he continued his narration. “Until someone in authority agreed that the art was eye-raping rat scat, and they’d been overcharged to see it, even though admission was free...”
“Aprés moi.” Edward explained.
“Opal’s going to rip you some sticky new ones when she’s done choosing caskets.”
“We no longer enjoy a professional relationship.” he admitted. Lilian looked up, absorbing the news in silence while Edward stared at his brother. “You left something in my car."
His gaze returned to Lilian as she alighted from the bed and walked into the ensuite bathroom, where she pushed the door half closed, her shadow cast in elongate detail onto the floorboards by the mirror light, disrobing with her. William switched to their native tongue to address his brother in her absence.
“Opal probably did Rachelle, for fuck’s sake. I hadn’t seen her for weeks... I don’t even know who she was running with.”
“Clear your voicemail, get rid of your phones, say nothing to the maid and get that body out of my car before I shoot out both your knees.”
"That’s like bitching because someone left a bottle beside your recycling plant.” William told him, rolling up the paper with both hands.
"I saw the girl's arm."
"Don't stare at her, blaireau. She already thinks you're some kind of daywalking goatsucking maniac."
“I find your savage chromatic vocabulary unacceptable.” Edward stepped forward; William rose from the bed. "Pet's here." he called, making an exit under his own steam.
In the shade of her apartment, Susan peeled off her weary dress and scrubbed at her head with her hands, watching tiny maple leaves fall from her hair onto the floor before the window. The sunlight delineated a cherry-coloured mark on her right hip, though William had left no other aides memoires beyond the placid, emptied weariness she wore beneath her skin. She sagged at the sight of her bathrobe, loath to shrug on its dead weight but even less inclined to look beyond whatever came to hand, drawing it over her arms and shuffling into the crowded little bathroom. It was oddly dark; having tugged the light cord, she found herself blinking down at a shape in the white tub. The soignée Russian vampyre lay stretched out upon her fox coat in its cool depths like the body of a sacrificial virgin. The little leadlight window had been blacked out, a pillow stuffed into its square frame, her red-trimmed suitcase jammed between the taps and the adjacent toilet suite.
Susan stepped back against the wall. At first glance the creature seemed like some enchanted archetype, but her exanimation was a profoundly pervasive agent. It smelled of ice and grave dust, sucking the colours from the light and casting out the vernal spirit of the day, replacing oxygen with a destitute ether. She ventured forward haltingly and leant over the lip of the tub, peering more closely at its occupant. The vampyre’s eyes were closed, hands turned against each other on her breast; the digits of her right hand lacked three dainty nails, and blank skin had replaced them. She took a great step backward, retreating quickly and drawing the door shut as silently as she were able, holding it fast with both fists.
“Is there a spider in the bath?” William whispered over her shoulder, bending beside her to peer through the keyhole. Exhaling in her redoubled fright Susan released the handle and shoved at him, before clasping his neck and pulling him lower.
“There’s a...” She pointed through the door. "Vampyre..."
“One we know?”
She nodded, grimacing slightly.
"Will she wake up?"
“You’d need a five foot gong, a Boucheron credit or a loudly sobbing infant." He nodded slowly, and then narrowed the darker of his eyes at her. “I don’t see any suitcases. I could always bring my stuff up here and we can fight overyour bathroom.” he suggested. Susan took the newspaper from under his arm, sitting down on the bed and glancing over the front page.
“Here’s me thinking you were so bloody desperate to get me down there because you couldn't live without me.” she muttered. “When it’s really about you not wanting another dead girl floating around and making you look bad...”
“I’m not asking because of Rachelle... yes, okay, now I’ve seen the paper there’s no way you’re staying anywhere on your own, but that’s not the point."
"What is the point?" she demanded. William slapped his hands over his face.
"Christabel... look what I've become.” He gazed around the room and found her suitcase on top of the wardrobe, pulling it down and dumping it on the floor before her. “I had to wait all this time to find out there was a birthmark on your arse that looks like Luxembourg and that you’re a biter and you snore and drool and squash me into the headboard because you're a mattress nazi... I fucking hate waiting and I've waited so long and now I'm a whiny needy freak, so please... just be my fucking girlfriend so I don't have to come up here and use your clothes to masturbate while you're in town.”
Susan folded her arms and gazed up at the ceiling.
“I’m not a biter... you just make me want to bite you.” He sighed violently. "Oh for god's sake... alright, yes, I will nag you and use all the towels and throw half your clothes away. But you're doing the packing. I'm off to find a shower."
Grinning, he pulled the top drawer from the dresser and tipped its contents into the suitcase.
“During the gross exam of the tertiary female we found exposure to a prolonged perimortem assault. There was complete... and I mean total, cervical displacement, of a kind rarely seen outside automobile v pedestrian... the force required to effect this trauma is... very, very considerable..." The speaker turned back toward his audience, poorly-concealed delight in his expression between the concessions to his raw throat. "Which is, I think most of you will agree... very exciting.”
He coughed again, into his fist. The silver-walled auditorium was a house strictly divided, though its intimate dimensions enforced proximity upon both factions; they sat on either side of the central aisle in their labcoats and baize-red biohazard scrubs, consuming every detail of the dissertation. Shaw sat before the fixed seating on a separate chair. He turned and glanced toward the rear at Josephine while the balding senior technician charged with oversight of all incoming materia ceased his sonorous account and referred to the projector, stepping backward from the whiteboard. He flipped through anterior and posterior views of the cadaver, through images of oxidizing reds and marbled blue-greys. Where asphalt had worn away the skin, the evening-primrose hue of subcutaneous fat formed broad quilted fields, giving way to shaggy, flaccid muscle, then glistening bone.
“Rachelle Addison Whateley, age twenty seven, nulliparous Caucasian female. Toxicology and biopsies indicated sustained abuse of scripted synthetics but no major pathologies. Some of the damage you’re seeing was post-mortem... all is consistent with the report submitted by our witness. None of this looks ritualistic or sexually motivated, so we’re happy that this is just the result of a disorganized opportunist attack.” The man slid his laser pointer into the pocket of his trousers. “I’m aware that there has been... criticism of the decision to relocate the material immediately after the exam." He waved down the hands that rose in response to his reference. "We were labouring under a number of constraints in real time, but samples were taken and submitted... and as you may have already heard, we found something of considerable interest."
Checked once more by his throat, the man coughed loudly in the midst of transferring further data to the projector and took a moment to gaze down at the screen of his laptop, its glow reflected in his eyes while the auditorium returned to silence.
“Taken from inside an open crush fracture of the Atlas arch. It’s at two hundred times.” He squinted up at the intricate retiform pattern, picked out from a complex of interrelated translucence by the paler green delineating its interlocking diamonds. A minute circle pieced the middle of each tiny scale so that the configuration, taken as a whole, resembled the layered thatch of a butterfly’s wing. “Epidermal material... from one of our most elusive target species.”
The speaker slid a chair out from the desk beneath the projector and selected a face from amongst those clamouring for attention on the right side of the room, taking his question with a slow nod.
“This is standard polarized?”
“It is. The first of three fragments we extracted from the cadaver, all from digital contact with the fractures in the victim’s neck.”
“Did you get any into a stain before degradation?” Two hundred gazes, both glassed and naked, fell to the senior technician.
“We still have the samples." the latter replied, succumbing to dramatic timing. "They’re proving stable.” Another, half-skeptical silence broke under the weight of two hundred competing demands. “There’s some nominal enzyme activity, but it’s profoundly retarded, so we finally have our pound of flesh... so to speak. Yes...” He indicated another inquiry.
“I think it’s safe to say that this argues against the conventional mammalian theory. They’re been assigned to the C class of catalogued anthropomorphs, and given the species number five.”
“So... the lizard guys win?” exclaimed a technician sitting behind Shaw. Leaden, humourless acrimony was exchanged as parties settled wagers, some refusing to accept the prima facie evidence and weathering the disgust elicited by their intransigence. Above the noise generated by this process another member of the audience assumed priority, using his imposing height and forbidding, lantern-jawed countenance to quiet those around him.
“Yeah hi... Bateman, Anatomy.” The petitioner’s attitude expressed itself in the dry, muttered pitch of his voice, his wrath almost seeming to presage the sudden emergence of spines through the fabric of his pale blue lab coat. Though Josephine had not seen him enter, O’Connor buttoned his jacket as he stood up in the front row, assuming a sanguine, reciprocal precedence. “You're presumably aware that we've been hammered for our description and at the same time denied access to this thing from day one of this project... presumably you understand the need to describe something before you can patent it.” The technician removed his glasses. “If you can't give me an immediate assurance thatsomeone has been tasked to yank one off the sidewalk, I’m going over your heads with my concerns. If we've got this stuff, its just a matter of time til someone else does.”
“No one is more aware of the need to acquire this material." O'Connor assured him. He allowed his dark, glassed gaze slow play across the seated mass. "You can rest assured that the logistics of a live capture are being considered as we speak."
"See, I find it ironic that the musculo-skeletal scope of these things has been slapping everyone in the face for the ten years spent developing the ADMs... they're not bigfoot, we had the footage the whole time, and if you couldn't sell this before now that's systemic failure." Bateman contended sourly. O'Connor wrung a black smile from his own thin features.
"If you can cite some other documented incident of gift-wrapped human material containing chunks of our target species I'd be happy to explore why it wasn't kicked up the chain. When we have a C5, Anatomy will be the first to see it. In fact, you can come on down and help unload it if you like.”
Biochemistry enjoyed his riposte far more than those seated in the saturnine ranks behind the complainant, the latter’s box-cutter stare darkened further by the remarks at his expense.
“Laugh it up like that when the PLA or Kliner-Gentec or Kraft beat us to market, asshats.” he told them from his plastic seat. From the back of the room, Josephine glanced down at O’Connor’s position; he was looking back at her. She stood up, slid her laptop bag across the seats and climbed the aisle toward the rear exit.
She had parked her jeep in the section furthest from the windowless complex and facing the closely-spaced cedars. Shaw walked toward it quickly upon emerging from the last security cordon and climbed in alongside her, thunder-faced.
“Bateman carved us up for not securing the unknown sub. Stood right there in his geek scrubs and told us exactly how it would have gone down if only he’d been there with a damn goldfish net and a garden hose.”
Josephine wiped the dust from the dash with a slow hand.
“Bateman’s always been a psycho shut-in. He and O’Connor should get engaged. The two that fled on Swiss papers a while back flew in three days ago, so you'll be seeing them sooner rather than later.” she assured him. He shook his head at the prospect.
"I don't need any more crap right now." Shaw muttered to himself inaudibly, regarding her obliquely and running a hand over his crop. "O'Connor's been poking it with a stick, wanting to know why I didn’t get a crew out there while it was happening. You need to think about where you were on the night in question, and get your story straight, because I'm not getting hung out for something I didn't initiate.” The heat of his status as unwitting catalyst prickling beneath the collar of his white shirt. "And if you still got anything from the blacked-out female, flush it when you get home. There’s no way in hell they’re not going for a live capture after this. Jesus christ... no proven ballistic heat, no clue what meds will drop them... I'm gonna get chunked out there.”
Keeping her eyes on the windscreen, Josephine edged her hand along the dark twill of her skirt toward the compartment between their seats, knocking back the lid and delving into it. Almost unwillingly, Shaw looked up and saw the hard, dark, die-stamped regularity of the shapes that had attracted her attention through the windscreen. In the last row of ashy green conifers stood three black figures, taller than they should have been, their body suits like slick marine skin, excluding the afternoon sun that reflected in the thick shielding glass of their visors. A bright red point slid off the windscreen glass before her and descended the bonnet of the jeep, dropping out of sight where the steel curved down toward the grille. The ADMs were difficult to visually extract from the dark monotony of the surrounding branches, and by the time she had drawn back the slide of the gun in her lap they had returned to their sinister union with the trees.
Hare-grey clay rebuffed the shovel blade when William stamped it too far in his haste to hew the pit in which he stood. At his waist lay the strata of brown needles carpeting the silent plantation; he had already toiled for longer than expected against the roots and bedded stones, the body he had purchased from Siobhan awaiting repose beneath the trees in a shroud of thick black plastic. Cutting a final block of pug free and casting it out of the pit, he sat down on the ledge and fished his cigarettes from the pocket of his muddy jeans. Owls called to one another, the pleading of their private exchanges so unlike the pinched screams that they directed into darkness; ghostly drifts of wind-borne dust and dandelion seeds floated between the trees as the light began to die, and with them came the sticky stench of decomposition, swept along the ground from older inhumations. He tossed his cigarette down into the grave, then bent to fish it out in sighing obeisance to certain antiquated scruples. The slosh of liquefaction, muffled by the plastic, warned him to moderate the speed with which he dragged the body toward himself and disguised the slide of the shovel behind him as it was swung back in a doubled grasp.
Pale green flashed across his eyes and burnt out the sight of the trees as the ground flew up toward him, pain bursting outward and leaving him witless for a moment, extending then contracting upon itself like an imploding star around the deep gash opened on his nape. From the lip of the hole his assailant bent down, ripping a length of his hair from the edge of the wound with her stained white fingers and considering it with a grimace half-full of pointed teeth.
"Red... like a whore." she whispered through her disused throat.
William stared up at the tiger print stretched across her great pale body, its hem fluttering, ragged, about her knees, and sat down again on the edge of the pit. Thick tears ran unceasingly from her eyes like melt from a perishing glacier, leaving black-trimmed trails on her cheeks, her long, oddly partial hair fraying and breaking amid its unwitting laurel of leaves and brittle needles. She was at once doppelganger and archetype, faded ghost and plastic flesh. As though she had already satisfied his questions, he reclaimed the shovel, favouring the shoulder that did not pain him as he dragged the shrouded body into the hole. The woman stood with her fingers working against her palms while he filled the pit, the coiling force behind her stare searching for some unguarded point of entry. A dull mark, like a gibbous moon, had been struck across her forehead, and Susan's voice fell from her mouth, perfected to a grotesque degree.
"William... William... Mr Lamb... William...” She used it in a garbled string of onomatopoeia while he recovered from his start, standing like a croaking bird, her dead stare shining as the stolen laughter fell from her mouth.
Rising suddenly, William sprang across the grave, forcing her backward in an offence that he did not press home, returning instead to the hole to tamp its broken earth in silence, gathering his spinning wits. When he had recovered sufficiently he kicked the empty plastic into a roll and walked the long slope back toward his brother's car with it under his arm, keeping his eyes from her, though she spat at him in passing.
Susan looked up from her book as he let himself in, sitting cross-legged on the bed beneath headphones and bedecked in swags of fire-gilded Turkoman and Indian jewels; collars, pectorals, coronets, hairpieces and earrings in silver, carnelian and jade rifled from the caskets lying open on the mattress. When he did not return her smile or appear to even see her, she called after his disappearance into the bathroom.
“Did you remember milk?” Out of sight, William shrugged off his shirt and glanced at the mirror behind him, leaning over the bath and turning the shower head onto the back of his neck in an effort to flush the laceration. “How can you go all the way to the bloody shops and forget?" Her frown awaited him, following him toward the door as he dragged a jersey over his head despite the warmth of the evening. "William...” she added. “Come here.”
He moved on into the hall, the uncharacteristic evasion prompting her to slide down off the bed after him. Stayed by her injunction he stood mutely in the passageway with a face so fixed and vacant that it was almost unfamiliar; she caught his wrist and drew him back into the bedroom, the jewels layered about her head and neck chiming against each other. Susan let him stand in silence while she tried to decide what had impressed her so unfavourably, turning him around after a moment's indecision. A manual inquiry, more instinctive than explicitly reasoned, yielded nothing until she passed her hands over his shoulders. Though he did not flinch, he ceased to breathe; standing on her tiptoes, she perceived what lay beneath his collar and clapped a hand over her mouth at the sight of it.
"What happened?" she whispered furiously, kicking the door closed and walking him to the bed where she knelt on the mattress to examine the wound again, turning suddenly away with her eyes screwed closed. “It looks like someone threw a lawnmower at you! there’s stuff stuck in there..." The shovel blade had cleaved his half-translucent tissues deeply, scoring a rut into the wide structures shielding the side of his nape and leaving a dark line of embedded debris. A flat piece of splintered rock, punched sideways into the broken skin, met with the highest curve of his scarified tattoo. Susan swallowed a throat full of bile, abandoning him temporarily in favour of the drawer in the red chest that she had claimed for herself. He stood up in another attempt at departure. "Sit down!" she cried, rattling a hand around the compartment until she had secured a box of sticking plasters and a pair of tweezers. “Do you honestly think you can walk in here with a giant bloody fleshwound and say nothing? There's things I will put up with but that is not one of them!” Pushing him down once more, she climbed up behind him and discarded the rings clustered on her fingers. "Who did this, for god's sake?"
She was distracted from his reluctance to reply by her first wary attempts to cleanse the margins of the wound, the grit wedged in its depths proving grotesquely elusive under skin that distorted its location like water refracting light. Two deep forays with the tweezers exhausted her fortitude and she blew a hard breath, looking up into the darkness of the canopy. In raising her hands to lift his hair out of the way she saw him flinch at the shadow of her arm, a reaction buried as quickly as it was suffered, though its mechanised defensive answered far more than a blow from a stranger. Susan sat still, then set down her implements, lowering her head to his shoulder and meeting with a dismaying rigor that grasped him like a fist, granting a grim transparency to the process that had so affected him.
"William..." She settled her hands against his sides. "If you want me here, and you want me to know you, you have to tell me." She stroked his stricken body slowly, and through her fingers felt his breathing recommence. "I don't care what it is."
“You say that now."
"I can see your spinal column."
"You said you were going to the shops... just start with that."
"I was lying about that. I had to go to the plantation and dig a hole for som..."
"Stop..." she demanded; he obeyed. "That thing you said at the restaurant... about your brother being a... about what he does for a living. I thought you were joking." She slid a hand across his mouth as he attempted to reply. "Don't say yes or no. If this is something to do with him... just... I don't want to know. Skip over that bit." Susan applied herself to the wound once more, using his account as a distraction from the procedure. His indifference to her delving appalled her as much as the sight of it. "You were at the plantation..."
“I was at the plantation minding my fucking business and someone tried to take my head off with the shovel while my back was turned.” he sighed. At his description of the injury she looked away from it once more, shaking out the row of plasters curling on her thumb.
"Did you see who it was?”
“Yeah, I did.” Profound reluctance returned with the guard that hardened his posture. “It was Rana, my wife.”
Susan sat back on her feet.
"It's not what you're thinking..." he sighed. "It's just... a contractual thing with us. When you’re a kid the hags flip a coin and hook you up, no cake, no holding hands. It’s not a fucking love connection.” Despondency worsened the pain in his neck. “She’s supposed to be dead, anyway. Turns out she’s... well, not fucking alive. I’ve spent most of my life trying to stop her doing this.” he admitted, indicating his injury. Susan pressed her hands to either side of her face. “I’m sorry..." William offered again.
She recovered, applying herself assiduously to taping the laceration closed with a row of overlapping plasters that proved as reluctant to adhere to his skin as he was to abide the attention.
"She's like you?" she asked.
He nodded carefully.
"I know I should have told you. But I didn't think she mattered."
"I'm not bothered about her... it's what she does to you. You're a fucking mess and it wasn't just the whack with a shovel." she told him ruefully. He moved to sit with his back to one of the carven pillars, leaving her hands to fall to her knees. “Is there anything else I should know or is it just secret wives and giant wounds? How long has it been since you’ve seen her?”
“I don't know... just before the Russians went into Persia.”
She shook her head at the thought of it, eyes closed.
“How did she know where to look for you? You could have been anywhere.”
"I wish I could say I didn't know, but fuck..." William lamented. "I think I do..."
"This was her, wasn't it?" she murmured, pushing a hand over her scars.
"I'm so sorry, avai'sahdi... I should have known."
"William, if you don't stop fucking apologising for whoever did this, I will hit you with something." Susan thought better of the remark and slid a pillow behind his back, sitting cross-legged on the quilt alongside him, wearing his despondency beneath the brilliance of her eclectic finery. He watched her frowning down at the palampore motifs; in spite of all he had conveyed, her presence blurred his looming apprehensions, a charm against the spectre striking at him. William picked up her hand and closed his own around it, allowing the strange, enfolding configuration of their respective fingers to speak for him. "I don't remember how she looked." she admitted.
"We all look the same... there's a boy version and a girl version and that's it."
"What was... is... she like?"
"La'issa. Complétement zinzin... deeply disturbed."
"Why are you such a nutter magnet?"
"If I knew what the attraction was, I would have had it surgically removed."
"Judging by the way she climbed a house to pull my arm off I don't think she fancies me much." He glanced up at the sour, grudging smile she directed toward him. "Promise me you won't ever let anyone kill you with a shovel."
William set the pillow in her lap and lay back on it with her assistance, enjoying the sight of her face framed by the jewels.
“I’d be happier with a heart attack under my much younger girlfriend." he assured her. "Did you know recent studies have revealed that a lap dance can ease the pain of a serious injury without the use of harsh chemicals?”
“It’s not that I don’t like them or anything, but I wouldn’t feel right about you doing hair whips with your neck like that.” she sighed, patting his forehead. He touched a finger to the first item she had selected from his varied cache, picking out its unassuming shape from beneath the larger collars and pectorals.
"I found that in Jaipur." he told her as she looked down at the piece, a Mughal pendant carved in the shape of abroad palmette from limpid, willow-green jadeite. A garland was traced within its curving bounds by hand-chased gold and precious stones, silvery diamonds and bird-blood rubies forming the leaves and buds that curved around an emerald-hearted lotus; it hung between two terminals of twined seed pearls on a chain of aged, buttery gold. He smiled. "Avec les compliments."
"That's very nice of you, but I only accept presents I could afford to buy myself, and I know that's a very boring rule, but I'm very comfortable with it."
"Oh Christabel..." he groaned. "I was hoping you'd abandoned your principles when you agreed to sleep with me. Just... call it a trade."
"A trade for what?"
"This is not something I'm proud of, and I've been meaning to tell you... but I accidentally ate all your jam."
"All the jam?" she exclaimed. He nodded, his gaze wandering over her scowl until she murmured to herself and leant down, holding the jade for him to kiss. "You owe me a pair of good knickers too, so I'll hold on to it, but nothing else, I mean it." she warned. His face clouded with another intruding concern.
“Shit... I’ve got to go and break this to Ed. He won’t be pleased. He and Rana did not get along.”
“What do you think he’ll do?”
“It will be bad. Like pitting a maladjusted tyrannosaur against a crazy tyrannosaur and pelting them with beer bottles and deer carcasses. He’s the one who kicked her into touch the first time.”
A rider urged his bay horse up over the sloping ground toward the head of the hill that lay glowing in the opening act of a summer sunset, its cruel, pale stone and parched dust rising in their faces and obscuring his view of its crowning ruins. He leant over the neck of his mount and spat, slowing the animal as he caught sight of the guards presiding over the approach. Two Qashqai girls sat on tall white camels, like carnivorous flowers in the heavy, flared skirts of bright Ottoman print arranged across the animals’ flanks so that they adorned both beast and rider. The senior nursed a musket inlaid with garlands of ivory and silver, the other a red-bound hunting bow; in their violent finery they sat eating almonds from their chanteh and considering the stranger with their hard black stares. Though he wore the qaba of a Turkish soldier, his waistcoat of brilliant green silk figured with spun gold matched the value of his horse, which they assessed with congenital shrewdness, and betrayed him as a foreigner of means, his brace of side arms narrowing their estimation further toward his station as a mercenary officer.
“Shab bekheir... Farsi balad nistam.” he confessed, though he despaired at expending the extent of his fluency to no avail. "Edward Lamb kojast? Inja? I am Gideon Auberjonois... I come to speak with Kala'amātya.” he added. The girl to the west lifted her head in a short gesture of demand and spoke proud but broken French to him, responding to his accent.
“You say, to me... I take, to him.” she insisted.
“I think no. This I will say only to him.” He waited patiently while the two girls conferred, the horse blowing hard against the hillside.
“No, we don’t say for you, and you go.” the foremost instructed.
“Ladies...” Gideon sighed. “Today, I have ride from near Bushehr, an lamed my two best horses.” He smiled. “But, ah, not this one.” Bringing his crop down, he spurred his mount into a sudden burst of impetus that carried them between the dromedaries, leaving the girls in a cloud of salty dust. His horse laboured over the tall slope and faltered before a rain-scoured cut, giving one of the guards far more opportunity than she needed; the shot from her musket sent them head-first onto the ground while her companion nocked an arrow and aimed at the rider’s shoulder, catching him instead in the stout flesh of his arm. The girls were surprised, but not astonished, to see their second victim slide from the trembling body of their first and continue onward as though they had missed him entirely, urging their own mounts after him.
Edward’s black tents stood beneath the humbled ruins of a Sassanian redoubt, pitched low like hands shading a narrow stare and commanding a raptor’s view of the garmsirat plains laid out in banded, studded gold and smoking purple by the sun as it communed with the horizon. Grooms in striped chapans and lambswool hats tended a long string of steppe and Arab horses, sloshing water into a trough from bulging skins while camels carped and brayed, waiting their turn. Beside the hearth stones slave girls from the Thar and Taklimankan, wrapped in thunder blue and ashen black, puffed at embers with their bellows and rolled fragrant dough from their soffrai, glancing up at the stranger as he ducked beneath the largest tent, grasping the wound on his arm.
Its owner sat alone amid the shadows in the sombre homespun of his custom, against a wall of torba bags and mafrash, stacked parterres of deep woad and earthen red grounds, lamb-white stars and amulet details. On the rug beneath them both sat a brass bowl full of half-blown roses floating in spring water.
“Kala'amātya, you are well?” Gideon enquired. Edward dismissed with a glance the two sentry girls who glowered at the edge of the tent behind the intruder, and they withdrew.
“Shiraz puts flesh on your bones.” he replied laconically.
“The fesenjan, avec le canard... I am a slave to it. But ah, I come here with news... your chienne noir, she has been found.” Gideon watched all suggestion of movement desert Edward’s flesh. In the darkness of the tent his gaze was less welcome than ever, as bitterly acute as its bright acid hue. With a low word he brought his grooms to the edge of the enclosure.
“Fetch Si’athle.” he told them, looking back to his guest. “Ou? Allez.” he demanded impatiently. Gideon continued his tale, shrugging one shoulder as his blood began to ooze around the shaft of the arrow into the sleeve of his coat.
“Some Amalaeh an some Lurs have said so... the women come to the sea, away from the fighting, but they complain to the fishermen... at their well, there is a jinniyah who kills children when they come for water... an that this jinniyah, on her breast she has the black mark of the shaytan.” Edward was on his feet before Gideon had finished speaking, and the latter was forced to follow him back beneath the eaves into the evening where three grooms struggled with a huge spotted mare, dashing away from the haunches that swung toward them with evil intent, the whites of its round eyes glowing. It squealed and threw back its dark head as Edward pulled the saddle from its back and dumped it onto the dirt, swinging up without it.
“Where?” he demanded, glaring down at Gideon and wrapping a dark scarf about his head.
“Ride to the sea, turn to the east an cross the river... there is an old caravanserai, with a camp to the north.”
Edward summoned a Baluch woman, turning her tattooed face to his informant.
“Feed him.” he instructed. The horse lurched in a flaring circle, striking stones from the fire and sending sparks streaming across the camp; at his behest the animal flew into a gallop, clattering away down the barren hillside and out onto the darkening plain.
Horse and rider were confronted by the width of a tidal river halfway through the second night of their expedition; at its far bank the tireless mare made a spring that carried them both from the water, her dark tail whipping her legs as she leapt up the rise and cantered on toward the low shape of a karvansara. Its colonnade of mud-brick portals stood like parched, cracked mouths in its lonely disuse, deprived of caravans and baggage trains by war and fickle trade. In its desolation it was home only to swallows and jackals, and the scabrous little vipers that had crawled in to overwinter in its stones. Edward slid down from the horse and left it to crop the tufts of summer-blasted grass.
A dying medlar had keeled over at the corner of the colonnade; he broke a limb from its silver frame and took it with him, around to the north of the shelter. In the darkness of the distance he could see the dull, flickering points of ochre that were the hearths of the nomad complainants and hear the bells of their black goats. On the ground before him a spring spilt from a broken ring of stones toward the footings of the shelter; a creature glared at him from its far side and lapped at it with her hands in the mud while her filthy skirts were soaked to a darker shade. She lifted her head as if it had snapped free from a tether, water trickling from her chin and from the black thatch of her hair.
“You cannot see me.” she muttered, rising from her knees.
“I have always seen you. Sis’thle nya'n si el’yeh.”
“I will not. I will not go. Say it in a thousand tongues, one thousand times. I cannot hear you.” He followed the edge of the little pool toward her. Rana scrambled backward and climbed up over the tall step of the karvansara into one of the arches, out of reach.
“Sis’thle nya'n si el’yeh.” he told her again.
“I cannot h...”
“When you first spoke against Helaine, what did I tell you?” he demanded. She retreated further beneath the overhanging arch.
“I cannot hear you.”
“I told you plainly... if harm should come to her through you, there would be nowhere for you to hide from me. This is that place. Sis’thle nya'n si el’yeh, Rana. Your sisters await you.”
Rana stalked between the pillars bounding the courtyard with her arms wrapped about her head to keep his voice from it. The ruined, shattered copper silk of her wide skirts fell away against her legs, shed in a trail of wind-blown fragments in the dust. Edward stepped down from the stone and tracked her across the enclosure, the distance between them dissolving until he might have stepped on the back of her dress.
“Go into the sea.” he said again. She turned and struck him with a fist. In return he lifted the dead branch in his hand and brought it down across her back, driving her toward the ground where she stayed her fall with both hands. He bent and caught her arm and dragged her to her feet, away from the ruin toward the edge of the plain, where the wind scudding in from the desert faltered and stumbled over tumbled stone and pouring tongues of sand.
A three quarter moon was drawing free of the placental darkness of the ocean like a newborn god, laying burning stripes of silver over the black water as though it were the fundamental act of some new creation. Rana felt the cold sand flee and ooze up beneath her feet and clutched at her skirts, resisting her tormentor, who drew her on toward the white-trimmed breakers, head-high as they collapsed onto the beach. To the east and west the giant, fleshless frames of vanquished whales lay heaped by storms in formless ruin, bleached salt white. Glowing diatoms rolled inside the waves, answering the waxing moon.
“Sis’thle nya'n si el’yeh.” His voice was soft and low, his hatred dimmed by the sight of the ocean, a thing from which he had always turned as others turned from the blind eye of the sun. While sheets of water swept in around her feet, Rana stared in silence at his invitation, at its extinguishing symmetry. “You will not get by me.” he promised. She let go of her ragged skirts and they were washed around her legs toward the patient sea while she spoke over the sound of the waves.
“When I am gone, Kala'amātya, you will be left with nothing but your hateful self. To think I spare you that by standing here.”
William waited on the porch for his brother to return from the mailbox.
“Rana's living in the plantation.” he told him. “I just saw her.” He watched Edward kick the pile of disused boots away from the front door, meeting his gamboge stare with the greatest reluctance when it was turned on him.
“Let me know how you deal with it.” the latter replied, stepping inside.
* Read the next Chapter *