L E V I A T H A N
L E V I A T H A N
Four men, their flack helmets and coveralls the same freshly-minted shade of blue, surrounded Josephine's jeep as she pulled up into her slot. She sat still while they clamped its wheels and ordered her out of the vehicle. Their gloved hands clutched the flat, press-stamped shapes of their automatic weapons to their breasts; she stood according to their instructions, putting out her arm and rolling back her sleeve, the foremost operative waving a scanner wand across it, confirming her identity and stepping back out of her way.
"Jones, Josephine, proceed to the primary entrance, complete the ID protocol. You will be assigned a destination once you are entered in the system. Do not deviate. All telecommunications." he told her with the flattened affect of intensive repetition, holding out a mesh bag. Another car rolled cautiously into the lot and they left her to attend it.
In the foyer that customarily channeled staff in two directions she was confronted by a stream of representatives from every grade and designation within the facility; data drones and minor administrators were pushed, clutching bags and boxes, toward the biometrics at the exit station by the same clade of unfamiliar uniform. The departing mass kept her penned against the entrance until another of the guards grasped her arm, walked her through the stream and left her in the mouth of a broad passage with a milling school of technicians pulled from their laboratories. She remembered some of them from the contentious symposium; more recognized her than did not, a few of them pushing closer, though visibly reluctant to engage the attention of their armed wardens.
"This can't be what it looks like." she murmured, keeping her head down. The men beside her assumed the same covert posture, turning to her as Bateman's looming figure, protesting with characteristic acidity, was marched toward them through the ranks of the departing.
"New brooms." one of them replied.
"Shit." another whispered. "Anyone got a phone?"
"They stripped us coming in." muttered Josephine. The young man set back the red collar of his coverall, shaking his head, his features paling and taking on shine. She glanced around herself and turned to find the emergency recess in the wall devoid of its handset. Their guards looked down as directives were relayed into their helmets and they herded the group together tightly, setting them off along the silver-paneled corridor in apprehensive unison.
Shaw squeezed past the men forced into uncomfortable proximity on either side of him, thankful for being able to see over the heads of those massed inside the overcrowded briefing room. The spartan, argent chamber was packed so tightly with technicians and operatives that no one escaped physical contact with their peers, creating an atmosphere already loaded by the coded summons that had recalled them. The door slid back to reveal another group of nameless guards, who filed in and commandeered positions by the narrow, head-high window. Josephine was compelled along the wall toward Shaw. Their attention was pulled back to the head of the room by the darkly-suited prefix of another inbound conclave, the homogeneity of its dress and attitude planing its assorted age and gender; they formed a line against the clear wall of the adjacent cell.
Over their heads a projected banner appeared upon the whiteboard, couched in dark Helvetica, a figure declaring himself inside the space cleared for his compact, polished person, his corporate colours flown in his neat three piece and the colour of his gaze.
"Aaron Mander, Interlaken Services. We accepted the contract to administer this unit on behalf of the DOD, and as of nine a.m this morning, that's exactly what we've been doing." The room fell into a silence no more capable of transmitting sound than interstellar space. "Interlaken delivers innovative biotechnological solutions to an international portfolio of client entities via efficient acquisition, intensive research and aggressive commercial development. Every process within this facility going forward will be a precursor to those outcomes. If you are in this room today, congratulations. You will be as central to that flow as every donor organism we source in the field."
Through the adjacent window, the corner of Josephine's eye caught the slate-grey silhouettes cast by the afternoon sun inside the barrack cages. Once again their native personnel stood against the chain link with their hands locked behind their heads while a trio of medical officers in crisp blue scrubs looked them over, at the behest of Interlaken supervison; each man was subjected to some swift distinction that consigned half to high-walled vans idling at each narrow gate. She tipped back her head in order to follow the trajectory of one such vehicle as it set off, heavily laden, along the stretch of narrow black seal that serviced the rear of the complex. She turned slowly into a stare from one of the incoming executives, who commanded the guard beside her to close the silver blind over the glass with a short wave of his hand.
“Do not leave the facility without receiving your new credentials. Anyone who does will be considered to have absconded and will be red-flagged after twenty-two hundred tonight, along with those who chose not to respond in person to this recall. We'll move quickly on winding down all sunset projects... some of you will be repurposed immediately, everyone else will be returned to ongoing duty, pending review. And that's all for today.”
Mander returned his attention to those solicitous functionaries once more clustering about him. His euphemisms, scarcely less candid than the sinister verbs they replaced, left the crowd in a winded paralysis; the room emptied slowly, its contents drifting toward their various stations as though suffering from head wounds, Josephine's lateral removal from the exodus into a service corridor going largely unnoticed. She watched Shaw amid the tail of the crowd and allowed five minutes for him to clear her position before setting off alone along an eastern passage that hived into intestinal divarication that proved newly and crisply reboant. Choosing a dog-leg into a row of broadly-spaced doors, she saw they had been cleansed of any titular designation, but the acrid scent of the black grind O’Connor favoured presaged his presence at his desk, where she found him, blowing the heat from his white cup.
At the sight of her he stood up, offered a wordless smirk, and pushed the door closed in her face.
The wet green stink of the henbane liquor staining Helaine’s shift was the reek of the draught that had bubbled up from her stomach despite her grimacing efforts to hold it, melded with the scent of sweat and dust, and of battered exhaustion. The smell underscored her slack, stumbling state as she followed the wandering path through the little tenant village with bare feet and blank black eyes. The field hands that espied her approach through the dusk shrank into their wattle huts, shutters clapping against the sight of her until the only remaining sign of occupation issued from the thatch in the form of hearth smoke. Behind the staggering witch followed her two patient companions, their preservation of the distance dividing them informed by the lunges she had made at their attempts to distract or engage her, or to mitigate the hardships levied on her flesh by its macabre and callous guest. Black mud caked about the edges of her torn feet had changed their shape; her hair hung in filthy braids, a fit frame for the hideous caste of her features, and Edward did not wonder at the peasants' evasion. Beside him, Agathé murmured the fact of her own fatigue, and he took the black woollen cloak she carried from her, laying it over the water skin hanging from his shoulder.
Helaine stumbled to a halt in the narrow midst of the way, shoulders laboured by her panting breath, a stream of urine running unheeded down her legs and puddling between her feet. Agathé kicked dirt over it in her mistress’s wake; the latter had disappeared when she looked up, diving eastward through the huts and into the verge of nettles and saplings pressed up to their walls. She stepped back for Edward, who preceded her, pressing down the boscage to allow the girl to follow without undue discomfort, but when he saw that Helaine’s trail headed down instead of across the lowering, fern-dressed slope, he abandoned nicety and leapt the fallen bole that she had already scrabbled over, running in pursuit of her.
A shred of her shift hung from the stub of a dead branch; he caught sight of the garment as he emerged onto the soft ground cleared in spate by the river snaking through Helaine’s estates, thick with summer-baked mud and flattened reeds. She crouched amongst them, midway between the poplars and the stream, and as he came on her he saw that she had turned to face the trees, her cracked white lips belching a rattling snarl while her broken nails worked at her throat, scratching back the skin as though determined to release something trapped behind it. Throwing down what he carried, he circled around her through the clattering reeds and dropped to press her to the stiff, caked ground, reaching with both arms to pin hers against her heaving sides. Even more dreadful was the sound that birthed inside her body, rumbling and chuckling at first like stone wheels upon a paved way, and then dragged up through a nauseous, whining scale until it sang like iron shrieking and sparking against itself, coursing through them both; her body shook beneath him with such duress that he relinquished her, fearing the effect of his weight. Helaine writhed as though beheaded in its absence, curled tightly, and rose onto her hands and knees, still screaming with the voice that turned his face from her and brought his fists against his ears. Three wrenching contractions of her chest sucked out the air from it, and as they lapsed, she fell, onto her face in the reeds, hands upturned beside her.
A drowsy roost of starlings was flushed suddenly from the poplars, clattering into the sky as one in a black ribbon shape against the dusk. They swooped in a great arc over the river bank and then plunged with the same terrible unison into the slack, lead-skinned water, the violence of their immersion cutting both air and liquid like a rasping flight of arrows, leaving no trace until their dark bodies, still hopelessly buoyant, began to bob slowly to the surface downstream, and were drawn away by the flow. As they did so, Helaine lifted her head from the silt, rolling over onto her back. Agathé struggled through the reeds toward them, dragging the cloak that Edward had abandoned.
“I saw two great places...” the witch whispered, her voice failing at first, gazing up at him as he lifted her hair from the blood on her neck and assured himself the wounds would not emperil her. “Ghost mountains, like the teeth of the world, and the honey forests... white cranes pass over the place of your birth, floating south, into the wind.” Though the price exacted began to awaken in the body that had suffered such rough service as a vehicle, in her eyes the surpassing joy of revelation replaced the black lustre of the unknown passenger. “You are the colour of the last snow before summer, where it lies about the lakes...” she told him, letting her head rest on the reeds. With a muddy hand she reached toward Agathé, who drew a thick fold of paper from her dress and handed it to her with a stick of waxy charcoal, its point tapered in readiness. Helaine pulled herself up onto one arm. “This devil told to me the names of others, older still, and of your land...” she added, scowling in discomfort as she committed them, slowly and laboriously, to the paper.
“You were ridden two days, and it would not let you drink.” he explained as he passed the skin of water to her, in anticipation of the thirst that rose like smoke inside her throat. “In my land there are shaitan who will not let you breathe.”
She gasped at the sweet taste of it in her fouled mouth, and let it run from her lips, lifting a strange, half-buried smile to his caution.
“I would trade it gladly.” Helaine sighed, closing her eyes. “Wisdom may ask whatever price it pleases."
William wore a faint, unconscious grimace as he listened at his brother's door, then knocked, pushing it open slowly. Lilian lay on her hip on one side of the bed in a low black bra and underwear, a cigarette between her lips, while Edward stood by the other. Between them on the mattress lay a dozen piles of banknotes of varying denominations, a small battery-operated counting machine, a slab-like crystal ashtray and the two pistols that he had cleaned and reloaded. They looked up from their reckoning, and William shook his head.
"Never mind." he told them, retreating back into the hallway.
"This is everything in cash." Edward affirmed, gathering up the currency and effecting a roughly equal division while she put out her cigarette.
"Lamb, what the fuck did I say? You can't carry my ass like this." she sighed. He dropped his own allocation into a briefcase and set the locks, sliding it under the bed without responding to her complaint, though she shook her head and muttered to it. Returning her gun to her handbag, Edward walked out onto the balcony with a sheave of papers and bottle of wine.
Distant frogs and persistent invertebrates offered their songs to a moon that was a half-spent token waning between idling clouds. In the mild, permissive calm the elms dropped twigs of dead wood and leaves into the grass as though some scrupulous hand moved through their boughs, thinning out the canopy. He sat in the carver with the documents resting on his knees and studied the dense complex of judgements germane to his own legal situation. In such silence his least sublunary elements could feel the slow tilt of the earth upon its axis, sweeping by indifferent stars, onward always toward the inexorable plights and obstacles that awaited only the renascent sun. Lilian let herself down into the slung curve of an adjacent steamer chair, arms falling into the hollows alongside her body in an attitude of repose, if not serenity.
“If it fell out of a lawyer’s ass, I guess you should read it in the dark... fuck up your eyes to go with the rest of you.” she observed, her smirk widening as it was reciprocated. The poignant colours of her naked face seemed all the more ingenuous when framing casual profanity, damask and lilac settled on her by the glowing ceiling in the room beyond. She spoke again with her eyes closed. "You can float me whatever you want, Lamb, but it's just dropping in a hole. I have to work."
"Stay here until the weekend. If no one can find you in town, they'll assume you've left."
"No, they'll assume I'm out here, and as much as it hurts to say this, you can't bury every fucking cop that shows up at the door."
They lapsed once more into silence, Lilian drawing closed his robe about herself and tying it at her waist. The dark linen held nothing of the cedar-like smell of his skin, its absence always prompting her to wonder how such intimate effacement was possible in contrast with the impression he imposed elsewhere. Her innards groaned, the sound curling upward.
“Ice cream... fuck, I can't get it out of my head. Hey... maybe I’m pregnant. Guess we should just call child protective services and get them set up in the driveway.”
"I resent the implication that I would be an alternately punitive and absentee figure in our progeny’s deeply unhappy formative years.” he replied, without looking up.
"Progeny... sounds like you're squirting toads into a freaking pail."
"I prefer offspring and its promise of rapid dissociation." She smiled at him again. "There is kulfi in the red kitchen."
“Who the fuck keeps buying green ice cream?” she complained, and rolled her head once more to stare at him. He relented, setting down the papers, and rose from the chair.
Lilian listened to him descend, reaching down to find the cigarette lighter that had slipped between her leg and the stripes of the canvas, flicking its flint wheel in a habit gleaned from her erstwhile friend. The flame expired beneath the brass lid several times before it was answered in two points of spectral, floating green behind the balustrade, the colour shifting toward silver as the glow died and her hand fell slowly to her lap. She sat still, watching two pale shapes slide up and settle on the railing, a pair of polydactylous hands, their stained claws clicking on the wood. They preceded endless arms that dragged a head and shoulders in their wake, birthing them out of the darkness, the skull crowned with a ragged, partial black thatch of hair and leaves. Elliptical eyes burnt a single shade of swamp fire but for their pupils; Rana's stingray mouth opened and closed as though breathing water, her broken teeth meeting and parting. Her shoulders flexed, their agonising elasticity pouring her over the rail in a movement so sinuous and ductile that she dropped onto the balcony like a python, hands splayed beneath her. Bare feet caught the balustrade and pushed off, flipping her over into an inverted arc from which she righted herself, eyes roving back and forth before finally settling on Lilian. On her hands and feet she came toward her, drawing her scent in hungry breaths when her eyes did not appear to satisfy her, then pausing to glare and emit a single guttural, the sound falling from her mouth like thick, dripping foam.
From this attitude of bestial suspicion she stood up slowly, that portion of her mind awoken by the posture replacing her grimace with a sneer of deep, wary distaste. Something tattooed into her dirty skin ran from the base of her throat over her chest, disappearing beneath her ruined dress; its features had dissolved into blue-black blur, the ancient compositions hopelessly degraded. Lilian’s gaze darkened as it climbed the creature, meeting her eyes and closing the revenant circuit, bending the current born of their conjunction into a circle.
"Speak." she told the dumb intruder, and the latter found she could obey.
“Was there ever a thing more certain than this, that you would wind around each others' flesh, like serpents? If I had dragged you from the ditch and chained your legs together... entombed you in adamant... he would have worn away his fingers in clawing you from it to defile himself once more...” Rana spat the words out as she would have done rotting flesh. “Who but a panting dralna cunt thinks death merely an obstacle to lust?” Lilian's waxing fugue appeared as defiance to her deranged accuser. “Kala'amātya is not for you. He was raised to burn your breed in your tents... he does abide me here, though you knot your cords and figure curses in your own foul blood, and beg him to dispatch me... look, Helaine... if you prevail, then so do I... all your art cannot put me away.”
Edward’s dark shape crossed the bedroom behind the drape, the reality of Rana's presence met by her own dismay at his.
“You are no more surprised than Sachiin...” she muttered, the sickened colour of her eyes burning with the strange and random cruelty of some neglected deity. “It matters not... whatever I may have been before the ocean, I am endless now.” Rana’s body shivered as though with the acquired might of her own fable, though her skin shed its dying surface from her arms and legs, falling into dust around her feet, the cold hue of the waves she had escaped bleeding from cracks clustered at her joints. “Shall I tell this?” she chuckled.
With her judgement made, she gave herself over to the language that she shared with him, though their remaining companion lost nothing to her supposed exclusion.
“The yu-kiang and taninim do speak...” Rana began, looking up into the stars. “But you hear only their whispering from shore, and I heard them roar beneath the waves. The water shudders with their voices... they sing unto their lovers, cry out in their agonies... and be sure the waves burnt my own skin like a fire, and that terror overcame me as I swam out, not knowing why, save that you had cast me cruelly from the land that was more my own than yours... you cannot know such water as you come to, out of sight of land, or the devouring features of the moon, hung close enough to reach for, if I could have raised a hand. Did you imagine it is tranquil to lie upon the sea and drift where it will take you? It is not tranquil... beneath you fly fleet armies of fishes that rise and touch their cold flesh to yours as they pass upon their ways... and monstrous things, with great mouths filled with knives and black eyes, coming to gaze upon you, seeking the lost to feast upon... there was neither shore, nor boat, nor isle, and all around was night, stars meeting the water on all sides.” She observed him as he was dragged after her into that unknown realm. “It finds its own way... after a time, I could not rest, for when I ceased to move my legs became as stone, and I sank into this black and hidden river, the sea rushing all about me, lapping at my face... I grew frightened in this thing that you had done to me... I called out, but there was none to hear my voice, and after a time I began to fall away, thewless as I was, and the waves closed over my head. I took my last breath, and my mouth filled with the accursed taste of death.
"I fell, as you fall in dreams from a great bird’s back, and all around me changed, the colour at first the blue of morning, then green, and then a most terrible blackness. And then I heard the sounds for the first time... there is singing, as I have said to you, passing through your bones, and the baying of other beasts, and stranger sounds with no earthly peer... sirens, weeping, the chatter of the fishes, like rain... but still I fell, with the ocean pressing in upon my mouth and eyes. The water crushed my flesh onto my bones and filled my chest, colder than a winter corpse.”
“And though I fell, I was swept onward toward the east, and wondered... does this water wish me well? Does it seek to cast me at the feet of my own mountains? But when has fate embraced us? I fell still further... into the dead water beneath, where it is as still as the air inside a grave, and the darkness I had known before was light beside this place that was Naraka... night, in the eyes of the damned..."
"All notions were lost to me, until a light appeared... so distant... but I fancied I had begun to rise and neared the blessed air once more... I kicked and swam toward this brightness, but was feeble, as though newborn, and could not hasten my passage. I reached with both hands toward it, believing all the while the Mother had taken pity. But it was this that I discovered... in the abyss, there is a light that is no sister to the sun, and when men say that the depths look back at you, they are wrong, for this place cares for nothing. I found that my hands broke, not into air, but into a strange and hateful substance, a settled mist... and when I moved my arms to keep from being swallowed by it, it flew all about me. You cannot know how slowly you must move under such a weight as all the waters of the sea, but when I had drawn free of this accursed filth, I lay still, while all the glowing beasts of the pit idled in the blackness overhead...”
Her own voice lulled her.
“Stilled as I was, I felt this dust fall onto my face, raining down like ash cast from some flaming mountain... it settled on my body, and then I knew... as the mountains are our life, so this sunken hell becomes our end... that after a time I should become as one with it...” Her unblinking gaze moved again to Lilian. “That is where you will know your last thoughts, Kala'amātya... where your evil will pass away into the water. And for what have you lived on, beyond me? Look at your witch...” Lilian sat with her blackened gaze, as though she no longer heard. “Already rueing you. Do you not remember him, Helaine? He is ever as you knew him... in him you will drown again, as surely as the ocean swallowed me.”
Her voice was choked off by the death of the permission she was granted, withdrawn with a glance by the victim of her scorn; Rana's attention had barely escaped Lilian before Edward fell on her, seizing her face with one hand and striking the stout blade of a tanto across the width of her stained throat, punching it with the same grasp through her dress, between the broad, sleek swathes of armoured bone inside her flank. He felt the guard strike her side and wrenched the handle back toward himself, snapping it through and leaving the steel embedded beyond her reach. Rana staggered back as he released her, clutching her riven throat, her retreat halted against the balustrade; staring wildly as she slid over the rail, she let go and fell away toward the grass.
As her view began to flicker Lilian saw him standing with the orphaned handle in his grasp, then darkly fire-lit and framed by trailing ribbons of palest green, their aimless lengths resolving into willow boughs that dragged their fingers through the river sliding by them, its dark face full of mirrored stars, reeds nodding in the current. The great tree enclosed them both; she heard the creak of something depending from its branches as the black harmonic drew her vision suddenly into the round. They stood divided by an altar stone of graven basalt, long and low, its honed face dressed with a bloody libation that crawled across the polish like something mazed, their bodies naked but for the black cloth knotted at their waists. She looked down on flesh that had become her own, the apparition revealed as but a memory recalled.
Lilian shook as she climbed out of her chair, caught with him between the flightless spiral and the breathless weight of revelation, their violence burning out her eyes. She could feel him staring back at her, but for all his cardinal volition Edward could do nothing as her legs failed, the glassed door swinging backward as she slid against it, crashing her senseless head onto the floorboards.
The house had begun to cast an angled pall over the swimming pool in the last hours of the afternoon, darkening the water. Susan pushed off from amid the leaves that had settled on the bottom and broke the surface, climbing out over the side into the sun and dropping a trail of water behind her. Her pink T-shirt bra and polkadot knickers were pasted in translucent ripples to her skin; she glanced back at the house before reaching down with both hands to adjust the latter garment on her rump while William ended his phone call.
“These things ride up my bum like a bloody gay cowboy.” she complained.
"Now my pants are chafing me.” he sighed, groaning as she turned and shuffled her damp behind against him, turquoise dye running from her sodden hair along her back and into the towel she wound around herself.
“And it’s cold as a witch’s tit.”
“That’s just an old wives' tale.” William smiled.
“Yes, well you’re the expert...” she conceded, frowning as she slumped down on the lounge beside him and accepted the blunt that he had almost finished, coughing at its egregious potency. “Since you are an expert, how do you rate my tits?”
“Oh no no no... there is not a thing you can do to make me compare any portion of your person to that of any other female creature, living, dead or imaginated."
"Come on... you must have seen a lot of boobs."
"And they are a great comfort to me, as are yours."
She coughed again and waved the smoke away, handing it back to him.
"All I want to kn..."
"More than a handful is a bonus, less is an opportunity for something else to shine. They are all more interesting than my own, and I am grateful for every pair that comes my way. That’s all I have to say on the fucking matter since the Count of Toulouse’s sister threw pot-au-feu at me for agreeing with her fuckbuddy that she had a third nipple.” he assured her bitterly. She chuckled and lay her head beside his.
"Am I cheering you up?"
"Does a hard-on count?"
"It might." she smirked, drawing the towel from the region in question and stroking it fondly, causing his eyes to roll slowly backward. “But if you don't get the hot water on in your bathroom we might never have sex again, because I don’t fancy mine any more.” He sighed at the unflagging nature of the insistence. “It is not unreasonable of me to not want to use a bath a vampyre's been lying in all day like Gary bloody Oldman." She scowled again. "Why does Lilian get hot water and I don't?” William pulled the towel over his head; she tugged it off him. "Who was that on the phone?"
"Fucking Auberjonois." he admitted. "He's in town for the Christie's."
"Really?" Her smile exacerbated his frown. "We should take him out to dinner. Oh come on... I've seen his picture... I know he's fit."
"That plouc salopard thinks I’m rough trade. Do you know how it feels to be thought of as rough trade by someone who eats fucking pigs' feet and loses their pants in the woods?”
“My nana used to eat pigs' feet.” she laughed, wiping at her eyes.
“Did she get pantsless amnesia twelve times a year?” Susan did not reply, her cheeks flushed as her mind’s eye was taken by a notion that aroused his suspicion. “I have this weird feeling, like somewhere, someone is abusing my personal history for their own unsavoury gratification.” he complained, at which she burst into unabashed laughter.
“Well if you weren’t such a horrible slapper it wouldn’t even occur to me to think about you getting off with hot French guys, in one of those shower rooms... with shiny black tiles... and those rails on the wall... to hold on to..." she admitted, picking at the nap of the towel. "I like how body oil looks, but it is slippery and I wouldn't want you to fall over or anything, because in my mind, you're standing up, and h...”
“You are so barred from that material from now on."
"I think you might still be a little bit into him." Susan suggested, inspecting her nails.
"You are..." she grinned. "Look at your face."
His phone began to vibrate again, scudding in a slow arc across the paver beside them; she picked up his hand and placed it on the neglected appliance, laughing as she tried to form his spastic white fingers into a grip, lifting them together and holding it up to his reluctant eyes.
“Fuck... it’s Siobhan.” he complained, scowling against the prospect, then hissing a private warning. “Christabel... psychokiller, qu’est-ce que c’est...”
She looked toward the house in time to see Edward step down onto the grass with a face that tightened her grasp on her towel, its perfect absence of expression somehow more terrible than any overt demonstration. William glanced at her as the sound of her pulse accelerated, his brother halting before them.
“Ms Christabel, I no longer require your services. I've deposited a severance into your account as compensation for the short notice.” Edward told her.
“You’re sacking me again?” she exclaimed, in spite of herself. He turned his vivid gaze on her, the colour shifting with their interest.
“Changing personal circumstances.” he replied.
“These personal fucking circumstances better involve smallpox or demonic possession.” William scowled. "And where the fuck is Frost? I haven’t seen her for days.” he demanded over Susan's attempt to quiet him. At her intervention Edward looked down again, her reaction attracting his instinctive scrutiny.
“She wants privacy. I am providing it.”
“If Christabel goes, I go with her, and that leaves Frost here on her own... if you don’t give a shit about that, I do.” William assured him.
As Edward returned to the house without addressing the concern she gasped a dyspeptic breath and pressed a hand to her chest.
“He knows... you saw his face..."
"He always looks like that."
"Fucking hell. Now I’m unemployed.” she hissed, hands on her hips.
“Christabel, just go on the game like everyone else... I don't mind. The Black Death was just a fucking marmot issue when I started paying for it. You'll never be hungry again." Though she swung a slap at his arm, her attention was claimed by the guard as the latter walked across the back of the house, raising a hand in a greeting she ignored until William picked up her arm and waved it for her. “You might not like him but you have to agree he is unfeasibly gifted in the arsal region.”
“You're not the one who has to sit there every morning while he makes one stupid cup of coffee last three quarters of a bloody hour and asks personal questions.”
"You never mentioned him fancying you..."
"He doesn't, at all. That's the creepy thing about it." she muttered.
“If Rana’s still around she’ll pop his clogs, if that’s any consolation.”
She shook her head to herself as she rolled the towel down around her waist, slapping his hand away.
On leaving the Jaguar parked in an adjacent alley William and Susan negotiated the refuse-clogged way outside the Black Moth, the latter pausing to stand beneath the alien-green neon of the titular insect and watch it fly in a halting arc toward the wall, where it was extinguished in a dry, static buzz. The night sky pressed down upon the greening brick to either side, airless and opaque; a fat drip struck the fetid black pool inside a dumpster with a lonely, reboant note that made her queasily disinclined to linger. He pressed a hand against a stretch of patched mortar and pulled back a trompe l'oeil partition when it sprang free, all the more convincing for having assumed the moist, shaded decrepitude of its surrounds. She was not eager to follow him, moved to do so only by her greater reluctance to remain in the alleyway alone.
The door behind the panel hung on blackened strap hinges as wide as her thigh. Though she found she could stand upright in the passage beyond, William was forced to assume a hunch in order to descend steps hewn from clammy bedrock, their treads worn concave beneath ponderous timbers butted overhead, so that the passage resembled the shaft of an abandoned mine. A single naked bulb protruding from the wall like a waxy rhizome provided an uncertain light. The chrome-like smell of groundwater seeping through the rock conspired with the impoverished air to turn her misgivings into physical discomfort.
“Now you know how the gerbil feels.” he suggested, leaning back against the wall and allowing her a view of the landing dimly apparent below. She drew him back toward herself.
“We need some sort of thing... I’ll... I'll touch my nose, if I want out. Don’t forget.”
“Or you could just ask to leave."
“No! I don’t want it thinking I’ve bottled out.”
“Christabel, if it even looks at you the wrong way, I’ll rip its fucking head off.” he promised.
“Please don’t ever do anything like that in front of me.” she whispered, then smiled, leaning closer to him in the darkness. “But that did sound very butch.” He bumped her with his hip, grinning, and they concluded their descent, Susan waiting while he pounded on another ponderous door.
It was hauled back on shrieking hinges and a pallid, knuckle-faced inmate shuffled forward to squint at them, affecting myopia in order to survey Susan intimately while it slathered a tube of panstick over its chin. The creature stepped aside to allow them in, a flesh-coloured skull cap imprisoning what remained of its hair in the absence of a wig. A terrible smell wafted from the lurid green satin of its housecoat.
“Heh... mighty nice a ye t’ git back th’ wernce after ah call ye three score fuckin tahmes.” Siobhan muttered, returning to a dressing table and seating its sagging frame upon the velvet stool. Summoning the will to gaze at their surroundings, Susan found they stood inside a domed chamber almost the size of William’s bedroom, though it seemed much smaller in the stagnant darkness, the sloping walls daubed with lime and streaked here and there with gruesome splashes of brown. The blue stone floor was intensely cold through the soles of her boots, as if sealing the pit of an obsolete hell. A sooty encrustation marked the ceiling where it flickered orange over an iron candelabra, a floating aroid stink exuding from its icterical tapers. The same candles stood on the crowded dresser, once the pride of some post-war debutante, sickly kitsch amid the shambolic herd of balding, uncouth colonial pieces, fashioned by farmers' sons in a twisted spirit of apathy and repression. Nailed to the plaster were a trio of polyester rugs featuring white tigers disporting in a rainbow jungle and a band of Arab horsemen carousing through an oasis, the second identical to the third, but for a slight chromatic variation. Their arrangement curled Susan's toes inside her shoes, as did the taste already forming on her tongue, of aged orange candy rolled in graveyard soil. Siobhan’s wardrobe hung from a stand, the vintage gowns sagging like the freshly-flayed skins of alien fauna.
The dresser mirrors returned a perfectly faithful, if gruesome, triptych of the creature, contrary to popular supposition, while it flicked dust from a pair of electric blue lashes and began their application. William sat down on one of the daybeds, long arms lying in passive disuse on either side. The vampyre devoted a jaundiced eye to Susan.
“Thought ahd git meh a better fuckin look at lil White Dove, since ye seen fit t’ ella-vate her t’ the rank of kint say ye weren’t fuckin warned." Its manifestly anaerobic state produced speech that was airless despite its rancour, the wingless observations flopping at her feet.
“I didn’t ask to be told if that makes you feel better." she replied.
"S'at raght? Guess every night's a fuckin hentai night now, aint it?" Siobhan smirked, warming to the subject. "Mebbe ye kin riddle me this... rumour fuckin has it old Red here gits in t' double figures with his icy fuckin devil-wood... can ye con-firm or de-ny?" William bit a loose claw from his fingertip and spat it onto the floor, shrugging at her narrow, pointed glance. "An kin ye tell meh... do it blow hot or cold up there aginst ye chit'lins?" It was visibly gratified by her wordless stare, and turned back to her companion. “Fuckin lights look on, but there aint much home, ah'd sey." it chuckled. "Used t’ be th' thing standin tween a cooter an ye private fuckin dealins was a edu-cational whuppin, but ah kin see ye aint raised a guiding fuckin hand t' this wern.” the vampyre complained. “Ye gotta git em in th’ house an git em too full a child t' fuckin run. Mah mammeh, she fed critters, cut corn, cook’d, chop wood an still bend over fer mah pappy when he durn whissle at her... only peep ye fuckin heared outta her were when she squit out another fuckin mouth t’ feed down bah th’ tater yard.” Siobhan directed a thumb at Susan. “Ye cud still set her on the path, an hev yeself a fuckin tahme into th’ bargin. Even eight month gone, ah bet she still look thirteen from be-hind."
Taking out a cigarette, William looked to Susan with a wide-eyed grimace, touching his nose repeatedly. She pressed a dry smile into submission.
“You could have told me that on the phone.” he sighed. Siobhan swore and ripped off its misplaced lashes, shaking its little bullet head; its mouth dropped open and its eyes wrinkled up into slits, and Susan watched in horror as something resembling a monstrous sneeze was propelled in her direction, a spray of cold, watery blood from its flared nostrils splattering her even as she jumped back. The vampyre sat wracked by silent, gaping laughter at the sight of her expression.
“Did ah git ye?” it cackled hoarsely. She stared down at the dark spots soaking into the suede of her coat. “Are we gonna fuckin sit here lahk she aint a im-pediment t’ e-ffectual fuckin communication much longer, ‘cause yew surely aint th’ only shit ah got t’ deal with.”
“I’m not standing out there on my own.” she told them.
“She’s not standing out there on her own.” William reiterated.
“So ye fuckin what now? Ye know bout everywern?” it demanded of her; she stood frustrated in her inability to command the silence as expertly as William, who sat as tacit and unreadable as the stone beneath her feet. Siobhan circled its lips with orange gloss and precious little regard for physiological convention. "This shit's got more fuckin gut-laughs than a wall-eyed re-tard with a flayin knafe... in-formin yer bitches... gittin chugged fer th' soshul pages, bein a degenerit fuckin drug fiend or de-jayin nekkid or some other hell-bound fuckin outrage... an ye jest hed t’ fuck that piece Opal were raisin up straight, then ye jest hed t’ put her in th’ river when it turn out about as good a idea as jammin ye dick in a fuckin hornet nest... brung untold fuckin shit down on us... rott’n po-lice... now ye gummin' them shitpumps from th' Old Side jest prior to 'em kickin down our fuckin doors..." Tearing a glittering sheath from the rack of gowns, the vampyre dumped its robe and began struggling into the dress, tugging it over the bony little processes studding its sunken cadaver. Breathing slowly, Susan moved toward the door, hoping for some merciful draft of sodden air from outside. William lifted a hand against the sight of the creature's ensemblé.
“Siobhan, sequins are for the living.”
"Teh! What kinda live bitch kin rock all this at wernce? There aint one!" the vampyre retorted.
"No one with a fucking dumpster full of missing minors and a don't-ask organ trade gets to tell me to tone it down."
"Heh heh heh, that's raght... ye don't git t'be older then Satan hisself without knowin how t' slap th' fuckin blame down on the rah-chus. Now this cooch durn know us all by our first fuckin names, an a shit an a shave aint gonna help yew beat the fuckin line-up when she's durn yappin t' th' gover-mint!"
"Actually, I think I will stand out there on my own." Susan asserted, glowering at him beside the door.
"Ye kin square ye fuckin tab b'fore ye go." Siobhan muttered, squinting harder as it slapped a cloud of powder onto its nose with a greasy puff.
“We're having liquidity issues." William advised languidly. "Opal ripped Ed Brazilian-styles, so have a fucking heart.”
“Boo fuckin hoo. That ol’ split-tail frauds her ‘sociates lahk a tick bites fuckin curs. Aint no con-cern a mine." the vampyre observed, wiping a case of cocktail cigarettes from the dresser. “Git ye asscheeks topside an settle up... ah'll tek what ye got on ye. Aint none a us gittin any fuckin younger.”
No bouncers impeded their entrance to the Black Moth and Siobhan herded them past the doors and into the sticky, incorporated darkness, where Susan’s eyes took a while to interpret the sulky shades of sucking purple and swampy, decaying blue before she ceased to trip and stumble on the uneven floor and discarded glasses. Leaning on their skeleton elbows, the habitués that propped the bar turned their hooded eyes on them; she glanced at William, then frowned up at the line of doubtful-looking spirits on offer overhead, settling uneasily onto a stool.
“It all looks like it comes out of a dirty bath somewhere.” she muttered. Her perspicacity wrung a smile from him that he turned to her in gratitude.
“How do you know this stuff, Christabel?”
“I used to think I was paranoid, but it turns out I'm not.”
Her eyes fell a foot toward the mirror panel on the rear wall, seeking the source of her misgivings, and William briefly closed his eyes, leaning his forehead on his knuckles.
“I know..." he sighed. "Just don’t turn around.” She complied, forced to content herself with the reflected image in the thick, pin-dropping quiet. The face of every stranger in the room had turned toward them, from the parched and bead-like stares of vampyres to the large party crowded about a cluster of tables against the far wall, candle-lit miens made red and shadowed black by the swaying flames. They were silent beneath a pall of exhaled smoke, nursing their powerful green liquor, burgeoning hostility and the latent, half-inhumed equivalence in the darkness of their eyes that marked them all as kindred; Susan thought she recognized some from the hahdri, then guessed that she probably did not, perceiving that it was not their individuality that made them familiar. She glanced back to William. He muttered to himself and glared across the counter at Siobhan, dragging his keys and wallet from his pocket and depositing them in the crook of Susan's elbow in a gesture laden with weary fatalism. The vampyre chuckled, pouring the sludgy brown contents from a hip flask of tarnished silver into a milkshake glass and topping it with stale champagne, creating a pink concoction lidded with pale yellow spume and sucking off the froth. “I’m going to skin you before I chain you to my fucking hood.” William promised.
“Teh! Kint do that! We all family now, ye fuckin made sure a that! This hoe maght as well beh the sister that kint fuckin outrun ye!” The bargirls stared while Siobhan hunched further over the counter and referred a loud indictment to the gallery. "You dummer-n-shit dogs need t’ git into ye heads he aint a fuckin rockstar just cause he kin gut a critter blindfold’d! Nothin come easier t’ a perdishuss fuckin snakeface that got no moon or daylight nor drop a real blood t’ beh fuckin mahndful of... ye thought him cute up til t'day, but now ye fuckin knowest... he gave us all up fer a taste a fuckin weaner pussy, an if ye think what fell t' fuckin Caleb aint got shit t' do with them, yew all go right ahead an let 'em fuck ye dry, an don’t come crahin’ t’ meh afta’werd!”
In the darkness behind them, the murmuring from the seated conclave died like a draft killed by a closed door. William took his time over the dregs of hueless liquor at the bottom of his glass.
"What about Caleb?" he muttered, receiving no reply from the smirking vampyre.
"What about Caleb?" sneered someone from the party behind them. "Like he don't fuckin know." William shook his head to himself, turning to address the restive alujha contingent as he shed his heavy coat.
"Mallet, are you even on my dick, because I had to ask your mother the same fucking question." he replied. "And if you whiny alujha pricks stop sitting on your arseholes knocking back muppet-coloured horse piss, you wouldn't need my brother to do your fucking dirty work.” He stood up off the stool, handing the Afghan lamb to Susan and cracking his neck to one side. "Fuck it... who wants to go?"
His foremost antagonist threw back his chair and his cohort surged across the dance floor in his wake, climbing over the tables and shoving aside the vampyres that had braved the degenerating atmosphere in the hope of witnessing just such a spectacle. Mallet came at William without preamble, catching his shoulder and attempting to twist him onto the ground while Susan scrambled up onto the counter in an escape from the encroaching crowd, dismayed to find that Siobhan had also claimed the vantage. The vampyre shucked up its skirts and gave a shrilling whistle of encouragement to the fracas unfolding below. William knocked down, then hoisted the struggling form of his accuser from the floor in both hands and threw him into the crowd, seizing another contender and putting him head-first through the barstools into the counter as swift, reactive punches flew between the lycanthropes, their infective combat quickly extending to one another and any vampyre remaining in the throng. Susan shouted herself hoarse, both hands to her mouth while he caught and punched a spray of teeth from the nearest stranger; blue strobes cut downward from the ceiling, turning the alujha stares into rounds of floating silver, casting them as whooping predators massed beneath her on some nocturnal plain. The sight transfixed her amid Siobhan’s hacking cachinnations until the vampyre plucked liquor bottles from the rack over its head and flung them down into the fray; snarling, she punched both hands into its back and shoved it shrieking from the counter into the scrum below while William swung one of the fallen stools in a gruesome arc. Its victims yielded a jagged stripe of blood that struck her as she jumped down herself, landing heavily against a knot of preoccupied belligerents, her boots crunching and sliding over broken glass as she squeezed through the crush.
She was buffeted onto all fours as she caught William's belt and used it to haul herself upright, only to be flattened against him by two struggling neighbours, catching a flailing elbow to her brow and ear as she kicked a fallen stranger's grasp from William's legs and dragged him bodily toward the door. A sudden emission of bitter white gas parted the impounding crowd, the substance hissing from the decrepit halon extinguisher clutched in Siobhan’s hands. The little vampyre cussed as it cleared a path for itself toward the bar and left its victims to beat away the unwelcome pall, choking and grimacing.
Susan held the neck of her dress to her face, stumbling through the haze with her companion. She could feel the fractious, pyrogenic spirit struggling beneath his skin against containment when she grasped his arm; in the alley outside, he boosted her over the crumbling wall and scaled it after her, Susan climbing over the hood of the Jaguar to avoid the dumpster by her door.
A tiny and impossibly elderly Algerian woman led them from a door with a closed sign in its glass through an upturned forest of bentwood legs, to a bistro table simply laid for one. The lone diner rose from his confit de canard, riz rouge and fougasse to greet them, and their maîtresse shuffled back into the quiet kitchen in her slippers. Gideon Auberjonois was not entirely as he had been inside his photograph and the disparities surprised Susan, though she strove to conceal it, smoothing down her disordered hair and dress after she had shed her bloodied coat. He was neither tall nor otherwise as he pressed a kiss to each of her cheeks, his face as warm as hers but almost atavistic in the pronouncement of its features, their bossed and dramatically pagan structure recalling the carven masks of imps and green men amid ecclesiastical oak. He was so strongly made beneath his clothing that the impression almost defeated its notional modesty, his hair dark and short and half-curling, his skin a henna brown by virtue of both the summer sun and his southern blood.
"Mademoiselle." he smiled. "Ça va?" He indicated with a discreet turn of his hand the state of their clothing, and they replied with the same weary expression, dragging out chairs on either side of him. Pouring them each a glass of robust white, Gideon sat down to resume his late repast and turned to Susan eyes of deep, impure green, like the ore of some obscure metal, inviting if not rewarding interest. Three rings of battered gold clasped his tanned fingers; a chain of the same metal hung from the breast pocket of his suit, a rustic shade of heather and doe that struck a careful balance with the atelier finesse of its construction.
Between mouthfuls of tender confit he conducted a leisurely, serialized survey of his erstwhile acquaintance, his private smile growing in inverse proportion to William's frown as he chewed thoughtfully. The latter pushed a cigarette between his lips and sought his lighter amid the black bulk of his coat but Gideon leant forward and plucked it from his mouth, sliding it into his own pocket. Presently he turned and began to appraise Susan in the same unhurried fashion, her features, raiment, and the fading red marks on her face offering the conversation she did not, William slouching back in his chair until the frame complained beneath his weight. Susan perceived his umbrage and looked down at the table to contain her impolitic amusement; their host leant slightly toward her, directing the fork poised at the edge of his plate toward their scowling companion.
"It is good, no, that we have so much in common?" Gideon observed, lifting the napkin to his chin. A faint scar that began in his hair quartered his forehead and followed his nose downward before turning out over his upper lip. He edged a bowl of fat black olives toward her with his elbow.
"I'll let you know." she chuckled, glancing with him across the marble at the subject of their exchange.
"I just got the shit kicked out of me by fifty barking arseholes at the Moth."
Their host shrugged, scooping up a forkful of rice.
"I don't think they ah, try too hard." William's face darkened further and Gideon set down his utensils, smiling at him fondly. "Allez, mignon... fais pas ta pute... I come all this way for your smile. How long has it been?" he sighed.
"You remember?" Gideon shrugged again. "I forget." He nodded at Susan. "I don't think she was born. Have a drink, eh?" Raising his glass, he successfully cajoled William into doing the same.
"Nique la police." the latter murmured as a toast, and they drank together, Susan swallowing the wine gratefully though she found dried blood on the hand she wiped across her mouth.
"I have something for you." said Gideon, reaching under the table for a shopping bag from which he drew a trio of plump, plicated lotus buds on thick green stalks, blush-pink and wrapped in a stripe of brown paper. Though he enjoyed William's suspicion, he was more delighted by the involuntary darkness of the latter's eyes as he accepted them, watching him lift a heavy bud and bite cleanly through the fleshy bloom. “It's true that he has told you of himself?” Gideon inquired of Susan. His manner was a strange blend of confidence and insinuation, his eyes neglecting no element of her response.
“You mean about...”
"Oui. About. I see. An he tells you of us?”
“Ouais.” said William, setting down his flowers. “I gave you all up like a perdishus fucking snakeface.”
The frenchman looked back to Susan, somewhat wistful.
“One hundred years before he would confide such things to me.”
“Well what the fuck, Auberjonois... next time try some fucking smalltalk before you rip the pants off someone.”
"Always so charming. Enfin... how did you meet? I ah, can't imagine."
"I'm... was... the housekeeper." Susan admitted. The intelligence returned the smile to Gideon's face and it urged her to further disclosure. "It's hard to believe at the moment, but he was... I couldn't quite say charming, more... persistent. Are you here on holiday?"
"Sadly, no... commerce."
"Don't let him snow you with his fucking Pepé le Pew bullshit, Christabel... he's not out here kissing babies, he's a dirty fence and he's dumping a bunch of looted shit too hot to drop in the E.U." William informed her, picking his teeth. "Blackmarket antiquities. If you can rip it off, he can turn it around for sixty percent."
"Sachiin's collection of course is sans reproche, particullérement the things he would like me to buy from him... they don't go to sales because, like him, they are shy. So, Guillaume... what do you have for me?"
"Christ, I've sent you the list twice... pull the fucking dicks out of your ears. Ed'll probably take a cheque but I want cash."
"In that case, I will come to the house an look for myself."
Gideon's smile remained complaisant as he turned to her again.
"Do you know, Sussan, that in the homeland of these creatures, a rainbow, it is viewed as a calamity... a certain sign of doom?” She looked to William, who had sat back from the table with his flowers. “I remember once... Sachiin come to the house from the parterre to tell me I must gather my horses an leave this place at once. He had such a look of great dismay I could not think what had happen... I ask, the magistrate, he comes to collect taxes? No, he says... it was worse... a great arc-en-ciel had appeared over the park. When I laughed an told him many, many rainbows have come here with the rain out of the west, he look at me with his great green eye an said... an yet, you abide here still?" He laughed to himself, warmed by the recollection, and Susan chuckled behind her hand, accepting another glass. “I ask myself... Auberjonois, why do you go on with these creatures? They are rude, they have no hospitality at all... they are trés égoïste, intéressé, déroutant... lucky for them they are quaint. You don’t like that story, Sachiin?” Gideon inquired artlessly. "I have others." He tisked at William's attendance to his phone.
"I'm looking for Caleb. It's fucking important."
"Caleb, du hahdri Adrahna?" William glanced up at the tone of the inquiry. "You ah... you don't know?"
Leaning down into his briefcase, Gideon found his own phone and devoted a moment to its library of images before pushing it across the table toward his guest, who glanced at him in a moment of uncertainty before consulting the screen himself. The initial image was a flashed nocturnal snapshot of the towering gate fronting the familiar hahdri. In the next, its sagging cottages loomed like ghost ride props out of the rural darkness, mutely presaging floodlit scenes of infernal, eye-gouging carnage complete with hand-held catalogue numbers and piebald reference scales laid out in each corner, the leavings of a frenzy framed by the homely plank walls of a large barn. Sweat-darkened animals lay both in suffocating drifts and randomised disorder, their heads and flanks spotted with bullet holes, throats gaping, some of them decapitated by the force used to dispatch them upon beds of golden hay and sawdust. The horrific files continued, documenting the yard around the barn, where resident males had paid for the savagery of their last stand about a battered utility with their heads and limbs. In the cab of the vehicle lay the darkly-spattered bodies of a brunette woman and two young children, the latter pressed into the foot well beside her legs, the hand-held glare documenting the calibre of weapon that had been trained upon them.
"Someone come to that hahdri and murder them... finis... everyone who live there. These pictures are en ligne... someone post them." Gideon pushed back slightly in his chair while they digested the news. Susan dropped her hands from her face and beckoned for the phone, and William looked up, hesitating before passing it to her wordlessly, though she could not bear what she found and pushed it away.
"We were just out there." he said.
"Yes, I know..."
Susan stood up suddenly, looked around and dashed toward the rest room door. Gideon caught his arm and kept him at the table.
"I tell this to you now because I care how people speak of you... it is known that you went to this hahdri..." His expression concluded the statement for him, though William was already cognizant of its implications. "It is thought that Prague sent cochon noir to this place to teach some lessons, and that your brother, he have a part in this. Sachiin, I ask you once... oui ou non... does Kala'amātya serve?" Susan's face held a sick shade of pale as she returned between the tables, her progress halted by the shadow framed in the glass of the entrance; Gideon gave no sign of surprise at the arrival though he sighed an expression of regret at its timing. "Your cousin... he want very much to speak with you. I thought it would do no harm." he confessed, raising a hand in a gesture of resignation as William shoved back his chair.
Bede retreated from the door that was dragged from his hand; both Gideon and Susan caught hold of William from behind, preventing him from lunging at the new arrival only by committing their last pound of weight to the effort.
"Stop it!" she shouted. "Let him speak at least!" For a moment William looked as though he might concede, but no sooner had they let him go than he seized Bede's shirt and threw him along the footpath toward the Jaguar, shoving him over the door into the back seat. Bede bore the treatment passively, petitioning him in their own language as he righted himself; William slumped down behind the wheel while Susan broke with Gideon, bidding him a hasty farewell.
"Sachiin..." Bede began.
"Sit there and shut the fuck up, Avi'ashān." his companion snarled, sparking the ignition as the final member of their party took her seat beside him.
Their guest fulfilled his narrow mandate with all the mute impersonality that he could have wished. Demanding directions along the freeway, William drove them into the darkness of an affluent hinterland stretching away from the city and its northern hills, where the night grew cooler, scented with the discarded foliage of roadside trees and freshly-clipped lawns. Bede confided the fact of their imminent arrival quietly, Susan glancing up at his melancholy profile in the rear view mirror as the Jaguar left the seal for a neat gravel drive, the half-naked crowns of lissome silver birches meeting overhead. It widened out into a turning circle before the terraced steps and chalk-white porch of a mighty neoclassical facade, sky-bound columns sheltering a glossy black door and lampless fanlight. She leant forward, gazing at its immensity through the windscreen.
“Christabel, please stay here." William entreated. "You don’t want to get into this.”
"No, I don't." she agreed heartily, folding her arms as he kicked open the door. "Don't start anything..." she called after him.
Having laid her head against the rest, Susan opened her eyes when darkness proved too encouraging to the images from Gideon's telephone, looking once more to Bede with the aid of the mirror.
"He thinks you knew about Rana." she told him presently, the remark reflected back at her by the windscreen and sounding slightly more accusatory than she had intended. He looked down at his legs.
"I can only apologise... I had no idea that she... I mean, that you..."
"Just... never mind." she sighed, passing the pendant at her neck through her fingers and staring up at the portico into which William had disappeared. Certain subtle alterations to Bede's expression were relayed by the mirror; his features possessed a curious cast, intensively familiar and yet estranged, its difference from his remaining kin as small as those between her own two hands. She glanced back at him. "Can you hear them?"
"How bad is it?"
He surprised her by allowing the impetus that troubled them both to remove him from the vehicle. Susan dragged herself out after him and they climbed the steps together, Bede pausing beneath the fanlight to consult her.
“I can assure you that this is likely to be neither attractive nor prolonged, so perhaps you'd prefer to stay inside.... I'll send him back for you.”
She nodded, and he made his way alone across the steppe of black and white tessellation flooring the enormous formal hall. It confronted her with naked and remorseless scale in lieu of furnishings; she looked up into the chandelier, its alien, lead-crystal galaxy chiming softly in the midst of the ivory vault with the breeze that had accompanied her inside. Walking forward, she aligned herself with its nadir so that the tear-shaped terminal would have crashed into her forehead had it fallen from its chain, its arrangements' occult perspective filling her stomach with a swooping, silver-hued nausea, her eyes with clades of artful stars that were replacement at least for the broken, streaming horrors of the hahdri. Wandering on, she found the rear doors opened to another glowing stone terrace and a plain, elongate acre of new-mown meadow that immersed her in its ponded ether, the colossal tulip trees on either side casting off their canopies of clear, untroubled gold where they depended over the field. A table and chairs had been set at the edge of the drift and Susan found their almost abstract remove immediately familiar.
In William’s first language the sound of anger was as fluent and uninhibited as the emotion itself, his voice relating grievance with the speed and address that his hands might have conveyed a more tangible offensive. Bede sat at the table with his back to the trees beside the target of his invective, the latter standing before the chair she had vacated. The stranger enjoyed the same stature as her accuser, the same lengthy composition, though still more elegantly made and as luminously indifferent as if she had been wrought of relict ice. She wore a fall of loose black hair, sleekly reflective like blackened plate, and a tunic dress of Japanese red; the colour gained such drenched, electric intensity beside the bare skin of her arm that the contrast shifted Susan’s eyes to the objects on the table, a black phone and a tumulus of knuckle bones, from which a soft gilt had been worn away.
William seemed to see nothing in her but the genesis of his objections. The stranger replied, apparently unmoved, the words glittering in her voice like the hueless crystal of the chandelier, the conflict escalating until its incisive syllables prompted Susan to press her hands to her ears, drawing William’s gaze and returning him to English.
“Nyāti... you have known me my whole life... you know Rana better than I do! She is a violent fucking lunatic... she's the worst shit that's ever come down on us... what did you think she was going to do? Talk it over?"
Despite the fervent nature of his objection it was Susan’s stare that turned Nyāti around.
“What is this?” she inquired, after a cursorial inspection. She imparted scorn with eyes of spotless yellow, set too far distant from each other in a face so full of harrowing, animal extremity that Susan wondered how discretion or apparel or even secluded privilege could have protected her; beside her, William represented drift from the ideal that she embodied to such a daunting degree of perfection. She wore no jewel, no superfluous token of the distinction that was more native to her flesh than even the black totems begun at the base of her throat, their tattooed figures disappearing beneath her dress. “Your companion animal, I presume? Avi'ashān has also acquired one... he would keep it in his sleeve if it would fit, but it does not. If I had told you of Rana, you would have run from her.” she said finally.
"Kali'niyah.... I've earned the right to run from her!”
“This entitlement of yours... is it license to disavow any of us? Your brother, for instance, should he challenge you too persistently? Or does it only repudiate inconvenient spouses once you’ve expended their last atom of regard? Help me grasp the intricacies of your argument.”
William laughed bitterly.
“If this was a fucking argument I would have won by now.”
"Your failings are not my concern, Sachiin. Or they would not be, if you did not leave them standing on my lawn.” Nyāti drew her chair and sat back down. "We have nothing, if not each other." Bede looked as though he might address them, but William leapt on the visible impulse.
“Now you want to talk? Too fucking late. Just sit there like a little bitch.”
Nyāti glanced up at his remark, visibly offended.
“I have never cared for that term.”
“It would piss me off too if I had to wake up to it every fucking day.”
“I object to the notion that Avi'ashān has been overly deferential... on the contrary. He's busied himself with the kind of indiscriminate promiscuity of which you might be proud."
"So now he's my bitch..."
"Do not presume to stand and speak to me. You may sit, or you may leave."
When Susan refused the seat he offered her, William dropped into the chair before their hostess and leant heavily on his elbow, the posture claiming almost half the table top and defeating the deference she had sought to exact.
"If my brother gets hold of Rana he will kill her all over again."
"I could accuse Kala'amātya of many things, but he appears at least to have learned from his own unfortunate experimentation. I regret you could not absorb the lesson yourself."
Susan and William looked to one another ruefully.
"Ny, I think I should stop you right there..."
"I'm certain you would like nothing more." she snapped, the two recommencing their unintelligible arraignment until Susan lifted her own voice to surmount it.
“Just stop gobbing at each other!” she exclaimed. “Whatever this is, really... I don't care..." William opened his mouth and she silenced him with a gesture. "But Edward's not as sorted as you think he is, believe me. And if you knew about Rana and didn't say anything, for god's sake... were you being evil or stupid? She's a nutter!" She lit one of William's cigarettes, drawing deeply as she rubbed at the bruise on her forehead. "We had a right to know she was here."
"I myself have a right to privacy and anonymity, as do Avi'ashān and Kala'amātya." Nyāti assured her.
"If Rana hadn't tried to take her arm off, you'd still have your fucking privacy!" William hissed. "But thank you for forcing my hand. Christabel..." he called, leaning back in his chair toward her as she walked away, muttering to herself.
"I've had enough rubbish for one night. I'll be out in the car.”
"I want you to hear this."
"William, I told you, I really do not care..."
“I'm perfectly aware that your discretion has gone the way of most things you’re entrusted with.” muttered Nyāti.
“I just want you to hear it from me. Yes, I've jumped Susan in, and yes, I've told her everything, pretty much. Every time something drops into my head, boom, out it comes in triple X detail... sha'a'inii'tra. It feels... stupéfiant, incroyable... and no, I’m not sorry. She's already picking up the language and yesterday, I touched my eyeball with my tongue right in front of her.” He smiled at Susan, who reciprocated faintly; Nyāti too gazed at her, his anecdote bleaching her stare until its inhumanity became a nauseous, almost chemical imposition.
"Why not douse yourself in kerosine and declare yourself the messiah?" she suggested blackly. His expression altered slowly from the smile that Susan understood into something more subtly articulate, though still guileless as it was directed at his adversary, remaining brilliantly persuasive.
"Il kama sai'inae..." he sighed. "I am so happy, Nyāti... and I am still your favourite, so be happy for me. I promise not to tell anyone."
Nyāti's reply seemed so measured that Susan almost forgot to take offence, even when the latter looked back at her as though she were completely insensible
"She seems such a childish gesture, Sachiin... like a bad tattoo. When you’ve forgotten her name and she’s ceased even to decompose, witless girl number twenty-six will stand there, baffled by my hostility while you carp in this same manner. And what can she expect from you? Eighteen months of your undying devotion, until someone drags her into a van, if she doesn't go to the authorities of her own accord. And who could blame her? If she devoted her last breath to you, you would still belong to us." She watched his attention extend across the park toward the house and through its empty fastness. “I can only add that in your need to disseminate this wonder, you neglected to inform your brother.”
Susan's arms fell from their folded guard.
"I'm glad we've not been introduced, because I've just got horrible bitch stuck in my head now." she told William, tossing a hand at their hostess; he rose from the table and murmured a distracted reply. "Lovely to meet you..." she called over her shoulder, scowling questioningly at him as he walked her back toward the bank of moon-white steps and Anakim columns, a breeze raining spent leaves from the trees onto the turf as they strode past. "What?" Susan demanded, the inquiry echoing about them in the enormous hall as she struggled to keep pace. They sat down together in the car before he replied, pausing in engaging the ignition wires to hand her the phone from his pocket.
"If anything happens, don't go home... call Auberjonois..." William advised gravely, speaking as though they might be overheard; she looked up at the sound of a vehicle coming at speed toward them along the birch-girt way, black and lampless as it took shape between the pale boles, whispering profanities as she recognized it.
She threw herself across the console and stamped his foot down on the accelerator with her own. Their undercarriage collided with the lowest step and sparked as it dragged free, the Jaguar forcing the incoming sedan from the curve of the drive and pelting it with gravel as they sped past.
Out in the park, Bede rose to intercept their latest guest; Edward's aspect was dragged closer to Nyāti's by unexpurgated wrath, his anger bearing him across the lawn like something she had summoned from an underworld.
"Avi'ashān." she called, recalling the latter's attention. “When you told of Sachiin’s indiscretion, you neglected to detail your own, which astonishes me less than his fidelity to you, given the circumstances. I renounce you, with Kala'amātya as my witness.” Edward sat down in his vacated chair. “Enjoy your liberty.” she added. Bede looked back at her in the wordlessness that remained to him, then departed in accordance with her will.
“I'd repudiate Sachiin, but I would rather beat him with a tyre iron.” Edward told her, voice full of vicious qualities as he pushed a hand back over his hair; he gazed at her with unmodified intent. "Rana." he said simply, forcing it on them both.
"She barely knows the sound of her own name. But doubtless, you will serve her now as you once did."
"As she did de Marchand."
“Your witch is dead, and the dead require nothing more from us, which is why we cherish them so unreasonably." Nyāti informed him. "Sachiin claims full disclosure to this girl. Given your own history of calculated transgression, I find your failure to perceive his difficult to accept.”
“We don’t answer to each other.”
"And now we must all enjoy the exhilarating fruit of this laissez-faire approach. If he is not forced to watch her die on the side of a road, she will have succeeded only in enduring long enough to be abandoned. Kala'amātya...” she sighed. “You live still with your own loss... keep him from the same, while there is time. There is nothing he would not forgive you.”
He looked into the trees behind her.
“Forgiveness is far more complex than it appears from a distance.”
“Will he forgive himself when someone is beating everything she knows from her?” His own experience laid out all she had described, bringing the elements forth like votaries to the god of possibility, faceless and infinite and bitterly familiar. She drew the gilded bones into her hand and turned it over, letting them spill back onto the table in a new arrangement. “One day he will be grateful to you for taking her death from his shoulders. If it were not for the times, I would say that it falls to your honour.” If Edward did not feign deference, he at least received her arguments with something resembling stoicism. “You are bai'issātva, and death is your gift... to those who fall to you, and those that survive them.”
“They are never grateful.” he observed. “He’ll hate the both of us, and have no one. So sit there and ask me to kill her.” The words turned like a hidden blade, drawn unseen in the shadow of her argument; he watched her recall them from elsewhere, satisfied that they had served him.
“It is the lesser evil.” she asserted. "But, do as you please. You know nothing else."
In darkly-shadowed abeyance lay the sere and undulant land encircling the two great lakes, their water lying upon the plain like lovers in sated repose. The proud head of the sentinel peak to the south wore the first snow of the season on those narrow, serried strata still favoured by the rosewater rays of the departing sun. As she walked alone over the isthmus between the water, Nyāti strove to conceal her struggle with the lowly altitude, though its influence clutched at her chest and dragged on her long, cloaked limbs.
She gained the summit of the rise and was confronted by the object of her journey. Two score figures clad in wind-worn, cinder-coloured homespun employed the shelter of the hill to assort the grim tools of their trade in preparation for winter, discarding those stolen knives and short bronze swords that had dulled and retaining those fit for the campaign that would resume in spring. Such were the sole conveniences claimed by the bai'issātva; neither hearth, nor tents nor even slaves enlivened their bivouac, all such considerations superfluous to their dour mandate. The dust ground from the mountains by their heavy robes of ice had settled impartially upon them, conspiring with their unvarying stature and aspect so they seemed a raft of sullen corvids grounded by the very misfortune they embodied. A length of horsehair line, strung across the hollow between pikes, sagged under gruesome, flapping festoons of sunbleached brown and shining black, scalps stripped from the heads of their victims. Nyāti was grateful that the scudding wind took their smell toward the west.
Loot from overtaken caravans and campsites lay in disarray upon the ground; robes and bales of silk, items of virtu and adornment contrived from polished turquoise, ivory and brand-like corals, the dowery silver so favoured by the doyennes of her own high order, small chests of precious woods and banded agate vials of scent beguiled from flowers that bloomed beyond the mountains to the rumoured south. With her betters she would select those items most suited to sacerdotal dignity, the bai'issātva themselves being wholly ignorant of such criteria. She could discern those newly consigned by the ire still brightening their gazes, the veterans having given themselves over to the conduct expected of them in triturating perpetuity, wearing disgrace as they did the dust of the plain. They were wary of the crocus-yellow shroud she wore as mufti over the snowy robes of her rank.
“I am come for Kala'amātya.” she informed them; they spoke amongst themselves in the glances that were their silent argot until one of the elders lifted a directing hand.
A string of horses stood drinking from the dark edge of the lake. The moon had risen, vast and blindly white and rolling on the low waves toward the shore. Kala'amātya swept a felt over the back of one of his mounts and tied it fast. The rude habiliment that sufficed his companions smoked upon the fire he had kindled for the comfort of his horses; he had bathed in the lake, tied his hair and donned a blue silk tunic purloined from the nomads he had executed. Alongside those weapons he had stowed the luxuries looted during the sorties under his direction lay bound in four neat bundles, readied for the backs of his animal train and not the discretion of the Sthali'sātva, so profound a transgression that she could not recall its punishment. That he was not preparing for removal to the furthest station of his corps' orbit was obvious, even to her assaulted sensibilities.
“You do not go north?” she asked.
“You do not keep avai’sha?” he replied over his shoulder, in reference to the robe concealing the compulsory garb of her order.
She looked over the horses.
“Why do you imprison these beasts when it is against the first words of the Mother?”
He enjoined the equine contingent to stay close to the fire before turning finally toward her.
“It is my evil nature.” His mood admitted no further equivocation.
“Ana'siām'ilye requires that you walk with me.”
“Tomorrow I ride for a day in one direction and then two weeks in another.” Kala'amātya muttered before she could elaborate. "I walk nowhere tonight."
"You go to speak with Sachiin before the snow..." She watched him reserve his glance from her, though she could see well that her knowledge of the rendezvous surprised him.
“Ana'siām'ilye has two good legs of her own.”
“Why should she trouble them on your account?”
“Why should I trouble mine on hers?”
She lifted her hands to the white-daubed hair at her temples.
“Come with me, or do not.” At his silence, she turned into the wind and wound the yellow scarf around her head, departing over the rise that sheltered his encampment.
Nyāti was forced to look back more than once to reassure herself that Kala'amātya had indeed set out after her, though whether he satisfied curiosity or some other perverse precept was as obscure as his distant person. The moon climbed to its apex and had begun its descent into the west by the time she paused upon a eminence and waited for him.
“If not north, where do you go?” He said nothing, drawing a hand across his nape and turning his head slowly in sympathy with flesh worked hard since the first days of an early spring. “When you meet Sachiin, speak of me to him.” she murmured, reminding him of those ironic debarments preventing her from conversing with his brother while saying nothing on his own lowly account.
The moon met the serrate horizon as they came to a line of abraded cliffs, its dry, fluted, wind-carved divagations an echoing maze for the unwary. As a discreet conduit to the bai'issātvas' northernmost theatre of operation, it had been favoured by the priestesses for millennia despite being haunted by the cackling, esurient shaitani cast down from the mountains. Nyāti led him into a crevice barely wider than his shoulders and far darker than the night outside, their footfalls rasping softly in the sand. It expanded sinuously into a slim ravine, banded walls dimly limned in charcoal grey and violet; at its widest point the sky was glimpsed once more between the overhanging stone, the stars like macula on the black skin of some cosmic archetype. He examined their familiar arrangements in preference to the tall, swathed figure awaiting them beside a boss of sandstone, its textural qualities reiterated in the plain weave of her mantle. The glowing pallor of the robes beneath were scarcely distinguishable from the person of the wearer, their hands transfigured into emblems of her station by the symbols scarred into the backs of their palms. They impressed Kala'amātya blackly, stamped over the earliest of his conscious memories, and he felt himself once more a reviled subject. Nyāti left him to receive instruction from her mentor, spanning the distance between the parties in a sanitary measure, between the sacred and the walking depths of desecration.
“Ana'siām'ilye would know if the foremost among bai'issātva can tell us something of this past season.” she told him.
“I am foremost?” he asked.
Nyāti turned to hear her sovereign’s reply.
“Is it not harmonious that something born to transgress might excel all others in such matters?” she related.
“The rain has failed to the south and east. We have had hard work to clear these southern i'ss’it, even from the driest places. They bring their litters and their animals, and they mean to stay.”
“And it is true that you kill more than you ever have? And though you leave their heads and skins as warning, still more i'ss’it will come as soon as the snows permit?”
“You seem already satisfied of this.”
Nyāti strove to uphold the formality her position required, raising her hand in a careful gesture that regained his attention. Ana'siām'ilye overruled her tact by folding back her veil and looking to him directly, her distaste for the measure related in its execution.
“What would you say of your time as bai'issātva?” she asked.
“No one has ever asked if I did like or dislike anything, and I can offer no opinion.”
His reply seemed to delight her.
“Kala'amātya... was I not wise, to know you for what you were? When you left your mother’s body and lay upon the ground it was your silence, as much as any sign, that apprised me of your nature.” the priestess admitted, watching him receive the news with familiar impassivity. “With all I know of you... and I know more than you imagine... I greatly regret that you would not accept reform... in you, there is so much that is lost to us.” Between them, Nyāti listened with the discretion in which she had been so stringently instructed. “Are you not weary of execration? If you could walk again beside your brother, your mother... be promised to a high-born wife and know her children will regard you as worthy of their mother... if you could be known by the name that you were given, and not that which was hung about your neck... would you not think yourself favoured? Out of my great love for our people, and of harmony, I have chosen our daughter Nyāti as a wife for you. Under her auspices, you will be guided and reconciled.”
Even in his armoured heart her words burned like stone under the summer sun. The sight of Nyāti standing without interceding only intensified his disbelief; though they were the same age, the brilliance of her youth was barely cowled by the austerity required of her.
"You would have me?" he asked her, deeply disquieted, looking back to Ana'siām'ilye's implacable features.
“She would set aside a great deal more than vanity to please us.” the priestess replied on Nyāti's behalf; still the naked elements of the proposal encircled him, no more real for the reiteration.
“I thought my sins as certain as your judgement.”
“Who are we to cherish or abhor an absolute? In entailing your birth so heavily, the Fates were tempering you for a long-intended purpose, merely obscure until now.” From within her robe the priestess drew a piece of fraying bronze silk, roughly cut and tied. She lay the object on the sand, returning her hands to her garments while Nyāti bore the bundle to Kala'amātya, in keeping with his threat to consecration; a smell rose from its depths, a murky, burnt and writhing green assault from which he turned his head. “There are three places where the water rises on the plain. Divide this compound between them.” He glanced down into the fabric and examined the substance for himself. It was shifting and dully farinaceous, molded by the silk then falling open with the movement of his hand beneath it, exhaling another taste of its appalling potency.
“Everything that draws breath lives by these wells.” Kala'amātya reminded them.
“As do these i'ss’it, who will whelm us in the summers counted on a single hand. We could not keep them at bay if we were all to pass our lives in putting them to death. Do this thing… they will not return, and you will be reborn to us.”
Kala'amātya considered the two women with equal emphasis, his wonder at Nyāti's abnegation balanced by the pedagogue's consummate cynicism, its shape reared like a tulpa, faceless and commanded.
"Ana'siām'ilye... if you wish me to poison the wells, ask it of me plainly." he told her. When she demurred, he set the poison at her feet and turned to leave. The elder priestess turned to her remaining companion.
"The Mother smiles on you today, as ever." she promised. "Had you been bound to that worthless, soulless waste of skin, I would have thought us all accursed." She began her slate-black anathema, ensuring he could not depart without its sonorous commencement in his ears. “Anamān, called Kala'amātya, you are nameless and forgotten. Give up your life and on your dead feet walk into the South until you meet the water from which you may not return...”
Nyāti went swiftly after him in her determination that no rash impulse would prevail.
“The poison will find the wells without you...” she whispered at his shoulder, keeping pace with him. “Your family cannot speak to this... it will fall on them as surely as it falls on you.”
If her entreaties gave him pause there was no sign of it.
“When you become Sthali'sātva, these things will no longer trouble you.” he told her.
Kala'amātya found his horses watered and in harness by the time he walked back into camp, the neat brown features of his erstwhile partner regarding him from behind a narrow pipe loaded with hashish, her dry white hair tied in a plait over her spotted brow. His train had been redoubled by the ancient bandit's thickly-hirsute camels and piebald dzo, all heavily laden, bells chiming on collars of red leather and woven hair. I’Tiang-na heaved herself onto her feet from the hearth and began to douse it with sand, her few remaining teeth, carefully blackened, emerging with the deep squint that she turned on him.
“Kala'amātya...” she began, taking a contemplative tone. “Should I think now that you have finished with this foolishness?”
He threw a water skin over the neck of his red horse and climbed up into the saddle.
“It has finished with me.” he muttered. “You have water for two days?” She nodded briefly from her own horse. “Take nothing from the wells. I will meet you by the Kali ford.”
She took the pipe from her teeth and leant over the pommel.
“With all this new wisdom, you must have a mind to take a house in Paršvãb for the winter!” she called after him.
Lilian’s hands were as cold as the night outside the hotel, fugitives in the pockets of her trench as it settled against her in the aureate warmth of the elevator. Edward had framed his absence as he did every lie, devoid of reassuring ornamentation, but she was pleased to be absolved from explaining her own. Her prospective client had offset his anonymity with the size of the engagement fee transferred to her account, the promise of more exerting its terrible weight on all other concerns. Its plastic, golden possibilities smoothed the disapproval of the concierge accompanying her, the brushed silver of his name tag holding a softly-hatched stripe of her reflection. He informed her dutifully of their arrival on the third floor of executive suites, but did not wish her a pleasant evening.
Panes of limed wood and flaxen limestone lined the hall outside, their bland blonde matte palliative to the weary eye. Her heels made no sound upon the carpet as she glanced at passing door plates and found herself five rooms short of her destination; though there was nothing startling in the discovery, Lilian slowed and came to a gradual halt in the midst of the passage. In the outer corner of her left eye the wall began to shimmer, the stone trembling, its substance loosened as though lofted forth in dust, birthing a myriad of tiny, phosphor-white motes, like dandelion seeds before a lazy drift of sun-warmed air. They wandered out before her, forming an encircling cascade that was not only silent in itself, but drained the volume from the surrounding world until sound no longer existed. Inhaling the brightly-glowing influence of the idling scintilla, she took a hand from her pocket at its whispered invitation and passed into the fall, the motes treating her flesh as a permeable fiction; closing her fist, she watched them drift on through its shape, unchecked, then pushed her hand into the empty air beyond.
It was struck by fulminant agony, as though a length of steel had swung across her knuckles. She dragged her hand back and clasped it in the spinning eye of pain, lips parting in a silent exclamation. At the end of the corridor a maid’s cart emerged from a utility room as a muted and indefinite shape; Lilian straightened slowly though pain still pealed along her bones, watching the cart trundle toward her from the shadowless distance. A door to her right opened inward, admitting a tall woman in a drab suit to the passage, the eyes in her hard, tanned face coming too quickly upon her own while the wall beside her head began to shimmer, its substance loosened as though lofted forth in dust. Tiny phosphor-white motes drifted in a veil between them; Lilian felt them glowing in her eyes, combusting and dividing, and pushed her pale gaze through the idling scintilla, beyond the stranger's stare and deep into the intent that it protected, finding shapes in black and olive drab lettered with shifting glyphs with hot, portentous scarlet. Satisfied, she allowed the incandescent apparition to dissuade her, and to walk her back toward the elevator where its open doors awaited her return.
Shaw leaned into the clammy ivy at the foot of the wall it had overrun, ignoring its sour bronze smell and clearing a narrow gap in the fallen stone. The street on the other side glowed dirty orange through the foliate vignette, crossed only by the nocturnal insects that favoured the lamp post for the amatory and predacious sorties consuming the last weeks of their lives. Looking back over his shoulder, he searched the windows through the lattice of branches and shoulder-high weeds that sheltered his position, bringing his phone to his ear.
“House and grounds are clear.” he confided. “It’s good.”
Josephine sat in the darkness of the rented suite, watching the woman wheel the maid’s cart alongside the bed and strip her secreted equipment from it, stuffing it into a gym bag, her mood related in the rough, clipped timbre of her actions. O'Connor darkened the doorway.
“She came right to my station, Mercer started her run and then it nose-dived... I don’t know what it was... it felt like I was made.” Josephine related. The operative zipped her bags. “We need to check her out. She’s not standard.”
“Ms Frost is on her way to the house.” he replied. “Traffic’s loose downtown, it’s a fifty minute ride at most, so the second team will pick her up.”
“Inoprophenol won’t drop a lab rat. She’ll fight it.”
"I'm happy with what the Interlaken teams have achieved so far."
Josephine watched his face assume a smirk as they recalled the hahdri massacre photostream; she wondered how he could smile amid the disastrous scope of its dissemination, then remembered his lack of affection for the culprit.
"Have they found Bateman yet?" she inquired.
"They pulled him out of business class at LAX."
The woman behind them looked up from packing her equipment.
"Bateman's gone?" she asked, glancing out the door.
"Interlaken took the bambis out and cut them loose on some lycanthropes upstate... it went bad. They ended up having to toast the whole site. Bateman lost it, posted darknet jpegs and fled with his hard drives."
"Damn... I don't think I even want to know what a bambi fail looks like. Those gross things were his babies."
"I think the change of focus was overdue." O'Connor remarked, consulting his watch. "Wipe this down before you leave."
A downpour swept over the crest of the hill, hissing across the tarmac and beading on Shaw's head, misting the glass of his night vision visor. Distant headlights already shimmered in the water clinging to the roadside growth; he leant out as far as he dared through the vine-swathed crevice, pulling the windscreen into focus. To his amazement, one of the black-clad operatives planted at the foot of the hill broke cover and walked out onto the seal, forcing the taxi to a halt on wet brakes. Shaw pushed along the wall until he drew parallel with the stop.
A burst of muzzle flash threw the thicket of figures closing on the car into cartoon silhouette, the rain swallowing the silenced rounds and the sound of the glass trickling from the driver’s door onto the road. They dragged a smoking body from behind the wheel, leaving it lying on the tarmac while the passenger was surrounded in the rear seat, though Shaw could see nothing of Lilian Frost until the door was pushed slowly outward from within. The figure that rose from it and stood beside the cab explained the desperate expediency of the ambush without uttering a syllable, male instead of female, emerald flash meeting the torch beam directed into its eyes. While it stared into the light, a figure stepped up and fired twice into its neck, then again into its shoulder, shrinking back to the verge to reload as quickly as wet fingers would allow.
The armed party retracted, leaving their victim to grasp the stainless darts and tear them free, gazing blankly through the crimson spatter driven onto his face by the murderous burst of fire. He tossed them away and looked down at the body of the driver; even from the top of the wall Shaw saw the deliberation that persisted in the creature’s stance, the absence of the slow and reassuring tilt that was the first sign of meaningful intoxication. The squad stood, hunched and transfixed, steam rising from their shoulders and their laboured breathing while Shaw climbed down. Beside him the commanding figure snarled an order, prompting the foremost trio to creep forward, rain streaming from their chins. The creature gazed over the wall toward the distant house even as they closed on him, his apathy explicitly fatalistic. As one the squad burst forward and swallowed up the figure, like a fist of swarming insects.
Shaw wiped at his face with his hand as he walked around to the rear of the collection van to perceive the result of their endeavours, a prostrated abstract lying on the churned grass, strapped with closely-coupled bonds of woven alloy to a steel stretcher. The drug gunner stepped forward and fired another three doses into the flesh of its leg; he trained his torch upon the captive's profile, examining the deep golden bale of the gaze that slid toward him before a mesh hood was dragged down over its head. A single command extinguished their torches, sent a pair of men to drag the taxi driver's corpse into the boot of his idling car and signaled the others to hoist their trussed objective from the ground, in pursuit of a swift and wordless dispersal.