T R A F F I C
The coffee machine refused Susan with a parched and gurgling complaint despite the vehemence of the curses she addressed to it. She looked around for a clue to its sudden malaise, pushing back the sleeves of her nightgown and scratching at her neck. The box of drinking chocolate that she guddled from the confusion of noodles and pasta at the back of the cupboards proved virtually empty and she swore again, tipping the crumbs into her mug and heaving open the refrigerator. The milk carton stood in a similar state of denudation. Behind her, shadow stroked across the gingham curtains from the night outside, rain hissing on the glass at the behest of a sudden burst of wind. She walked into the entrance hall, stood listening for a moment, then turned her ear against the door, striving to decide if there was a presence in the porch until the handle moved and opened against her.
"Ms Christabel." said Shaw, pushing back the grey hood of his sweater. "You don't mind, do you? It's coming down pretty hard out there." He smiled at her visible dismay, following her into the kitchen where he occupied the doorway, leaning against the frame and blowing the steam from his flask of coffee. Rain had painted brief, almost digital falls of darkness across his shoulders though the rest of his clothing was largely untouched by the downpour. "That damn thing..." he added, shaking his head at the coffee machine. "Let me look at it..."
"I can sort it." Susan muttered, pulling the hood from the appliance herself and standing on tip toe to peer inside. She glanced back at him over her shoulder when he advanced despite her assurance, and he returned to the doorway.
"Sure not much of a night out there. That driveway's going to ice up pretty good in a month or so... hope they get some grit out here. I don't want to leave my ride out on the street when the snow hits." His observations redoubled her annoyance as she discovered the reservoir tube stood disarticulated, unscrewed from the base of the steam wand. "Thought about catching a movie tomorrow... want a ride into town? I'm just down the road and I could use..."
"I can't. We're busy tomorrow."
"Stepping out with Mr Lamb junior? You two seem pretty tight lately..." Susan looked back again at his knowing smile, slapping the cupboards closed overhead. "Where you headed?"
"Where are we headed?" she iterated, scowling up at him when he did not oblige her approach to the door.
"Did it come out like that? I'm just trying to make nice.." She tried to press past him; Shaw put out an arm and stayed her. "Hey, that's new." he exclaimed, tapping at the site of her scars on his own neck. "Did that happen here?" His scrutiny became more acute. "Come on, you can't tell me this was nothing... you should talk to someone."
"Will you get out of my way, please?" she told him, turning sideways to shove past him.
The same rain lashed the tall panes that lined the studio, drumming on the roof, spewing in freshets from the broken guttering and gouging at the ground below. The lengthy chamber was perfumed by precious woods, polish and storage dust, and Edward stood, looking down at the scabbard in his hands, its dark, discreet lacquer sheathing the last odachi in his possession. His protracted reach allowed him to remove the blade from its housing unaided, a smooth, dry shucking sound attending its removal; he lay it across his palm, frowning down at the nicks and gouges marring its edge, though the steel still bore the lustrous damascene grain of its painstaking assembly. It predated the zenith of the swordsmith’s art, its imperfection a brittle, unforgiving thing that he had always exploited, keeping his proficiency in spite of it.
The last of the oxblood bags hung from the ceiling; the web of tendons in his left hand contracted, pulling tight as he closed his fingers on the clothbound hilt. Performing no guard or formal posture, he set off in the midst of his purpose, blade blinking with the colour of the ceiling as he whipped it backward and swung its length through the bag; the lower half fell with a short thud to the boards, cleanly severed, the impact bleeding through his feet as though he had stamped them hard. Lilian's scent drifted past him as he sheathed the blade, a sweet guest amid the notes crowding the studio. She stood, tying a black robe about her waist while he replaced the weapon on one of the cabinets earmarked for sale. A mass of furniture and objet lined the window-bearing wall, its diverse shapes and surfaces exaggerating the distance between them.
“That was hot." she said quietly. "You should have come got me.”
“I hack alone.” he replied. Lilian looked around herself and chose the carver he had taken from his room, sitting down slowly and casting her speculation over their belongings before turning it on him. Her scrutiny met little resistance; he took a chair for himself from the wall.
“First time you brought me here, know what I thought?” she asked.
“No.” he admitted.
“That you were a bad trick.” The polished floor reflected her as she reached up and lifted her silver hair from her neck with both hands, twisting it into a knot upon her head.
“And yet my money was as good as anyone’s.”
“Sure it was. You were the first guy I wanted to see naked since I was eighteen. That, and you were double tapping Orb's ass, right there in your head...”
“I don’t remember.”
She made a small, exculpatory gesture.
“You probably don’t even know you’re doing it.”
Edward turned his hand over on the arm of his chair and opened it slowly, in an invitation she obliged in her own partial, ambiguous manner, easing herself onto her feet and walking toward him alongside the consigned effects, pausing to examine their components.
“Can’t believe I ever got in your car.” she said, almost to herself, fingers moving over the busy grain of an old coffer.
“You must be sorry you did.”
“I’m saying it was fucked up... I’m not saying I regret it. Jesus, you’re so fucking literal.” His hand renewed its gesture of demand; she moved closer still, examining a low bronze censer. “Do I look like her?” she asked. He took some small time to himself.
“Yes, and no. You seem younger... everyone does today.”
“How old was she?”
“Thirty-eight when she died.”
Her expression altered slightly as she nodded.
“How are we the same?”
Edward closed his eyes.
“Your voice. And your skin."
“Did you love her?”
“More than I thought possible.” he replied, watching her struggle with his responses.
“I guess... what I want to hear is that, whatever happened, it was worth the stitches...” Lilian admitted. "That you made each other happy."
“I'm happy now.” Her glance was heavily shaded with disbelief. “I'm perverse...” he reminded her. “It has its moments.” Watching him say the word led her to ponder his facility across that involuted spectrum, her compulsive taste for it and her own fatalistic discipline, the prospect of confining herself once more within detachment awaiting his absence like a jailer. He spoke her name; the approach of someone along the hall outside made him defer the question, though it longed for her. They looked together toward Susan, who felt the heat of unwitting intrusion, remaining in the doorway until Lilian created a small, makeshift distance between them, turning to two paintings propped alongside one another at her right and lighting a cigarette as she considered them.
“Flicking both?” she asked.
“I don’t know yet.” said Edward. “Some things you can’t give up, no matter what you tell yourself.”
“Everything gets old... just give it time.” she sighed. “Personally, I got a hard on for the Delacroix. Who doesn't love a lion beating up a fucking jaguar?”
"Leopard. New World felidae were entirely absent from the Rive Gauche during the period in question." Susan rolled her eyes, and Lilian directed a mocking look at her.
“Are you accusing my associate of being a humourless freak?” she smirked.
“I’m not saying anything.” Susan promised, venturing toward them despite the lingering atmosphere that prevailed. Their possessions were laid out in careless, barbaric splendour, like a three-dimensional Lascaux, a panorama of lavish, orphaned beauty and disordered ornamentation, randomized by its loss of context; though she had seen many of the pieces about the house, Susan found herself gazing on them with new eyes, recognizing qualities previously disguised by domesticity.
"What's happened?" Edward asked her from his chair. She was reminded of Shaw, and startled to think his importuning might have told upon her features, but shook her head. Behind them William dragged a half-rolled rug into the studio, his arms stuffed with artifacts chosen from his own rooms; beside Edward’s already substantial body of selected pieces he deposited fragments of Parthian gold in a plastic shopping bag, a cigar box stuffed with uncut sapphires and a smoothly planate Olmec mask of mottled olive jadite. He and Lilian glanced briefly at, then away from each other, their silence persisting. Susan glanced at him pointedly as he reached back and switched on a half-dead bank of lights.
“That’s white man’s electricity.” Lilian observed. William smiled.
“Tell him to come and get his women next time you see him.” he replied, his vulgarity drawing both of their disapprobation. “They’re wearing down my best inch.” He sat in the vacated chair and patted a knee for each female companion, lighting a cigarette when the invitation was refused and glancing over his shoulder at Susan departing the studio. "That's my fucking Delacroix.”
"Auberjonois is late." Edward muttered.
"Eight's alujha for nine forty-seven. Okay, so, town meeting." William proposed, clicking his fingers in a desultory call to order upon Susan’s return. "When all this shit is gone we'll have some liquide, but then... what? Then we should g... g... starts with g, say it with me..."
"We should leave." said Edward.
"I was looking for get the fuck out of here, but I'll take that. I'm not waiting around for whatever found Cay and Annick to kick our fucking door down."
"And go where?" Susan demanded, chewing on the corner of her thumb. He shrugged.
"Mmm... let's just peel out and decide where afterwards. But hey, we've got our very own sinister self-appointed egomaniac in charge and it's traditional to dignify that shit with some sort of sham election, so all in favour of bugging out, in principle, hands up.” He raised his own, as did Susan and Lilian. While he spoke, a well of diminutive darkness gathered in the doorway, Petrouchka standing before the Delacroix in a black dress with her hand touching her chin, gaze rising from it to the rain that still threw itself against the windows. “What do you want to do, Pet? Coming with us?” William inquired. The vampyre avoided Lilian with great decorum, alighting on the arm of his chair.
“Is kind, darlink, but I go with Gideon. He have aeroplane, so... is good for me. You, Susan? What do you do?”
“Going with him.” she sighed.
“She needs some reliable heat.” William told his brother.
“No! I don’t want to be a stupid macho gun toting arsehole...” she complained, perceiving just as rapidly that she had lain the unflattering designation upon the bulk of her companions, and that they looked back at her in silence.
“Ever hear about the awesomeness of being a live gun toting arsehole instead of a corpse with a really clear conscience?” William inquired, watching her walk to the calamander table behind the painting and draw her Mughul pendant from the pocket of her robe. “Christabel... no no no... qu'est-ce que tu fous?” he exclaimed, leaning out to catch the chain and stuff it back into her hands; she fended him off and replaced it on the table.
“I’m not going anywhere if I can’t pay my way. If you touch it, I will flush it down the toilet.”
“I’ve got maybe three K left.” Lilian said slowly as she blew the dust from the blue gems William had purveyed, the ragged stones rolling in their bed of cigarette paper.
“Your money’s no good here, sugartits. You paid the rent the hard way.” he smiled to her look of displeasure.
“These are fucking primo. I know a guy who’ll like them.”
“They need to er... stay low profile.”
“I get that they didn’t fly out of your asshole to the sound of fucking trumpets. Do you want me to call him or not?”
Susan watched Edward devote his unqualified attention to Lilian and wondered how they could have immersed themselves in one another to such an extent without satisfying the directive impulse. Something even more elemental than desire altered the colour of his eyes and kept him silent, even when she looked up and saw it in him, their shared privilege requiring nothing more explicit. His phone buzzed in his pocket and he stood, leaving the ballroom to attend to the call; in his absence, William stretched out a leg and gently kicked Lilian’s calf. She looked to him but did not speak, and he shook his head to himself.
“Go with him, Frost. Who else’ll duct tape you to a clothesline and paint you with Tabasco sauce? You were lucky to find someone who shares your interests.”
“Some day my prince will come.” she murmured. “Maybe he won’t be fucked up or foreign, but I guess he’ll be human. What's more important?” She looked up from her own flattened affect to the morbid exclusivity of Petrouchka’s stare, glad of Edward’s return.
“I’ll dismiss the guard in the next few days... say nothing to him.” he told them. Susan looked up as though she might speak, but remained quiet.
“Put it back.” she insisted instead, perceiving the absence of her pendant upon the table; William offered her an expression that might have convinced anyone else of his innocence, letting his head fall back in dramatic concession when she persisted, allowing her to drag the secreted jewel out of his pocket.
"What the fuck kind of time do you call this?" he demanded of Gideon, the latter admitting himself with a smile that he passed around the room, sustaining it even at the sight of Lilian, though she gave him a long and visible pause.
"Embouteillage." he explained with a shrug, taking out his phone to briskly photograph the larger pieces and tallying their wholesale value. "Edward, the Ziegler Mahal... you don't want to wait for Sotherby's? This size, it has done very well..."
"Now is better." Edward replied.
"For us both." he smiled, making notes. He made further inquiries regarding several of the more obscure items before pushing his pencil through the gold chain and lifting the pendant slowly, setting the loupe from his pocket to his right eye to read the elegant inscription faintly etched into the reverse. "Êtes-vous sûr?" he inquired, looking to William almost warily.
"Do you think you'll get anything for it?" asked Susan, slightly discomforted by Gideon's expression.
"Un peu." he smiled, obscurely. "Edward..." he continued, shaking his head briefly at the unaccustomed and entirely inapposite honorific as he walked back toward him. "Per'aps you can settle something for me... you have seen these?" Accepting his phone, Edward looked through the images of the hahdri massacre as though they were holiday snapshots, Susan watching their dark, bruised hues projected over the gold of his eyes. "What, ah, does this look like, to you?"
"You don't know who?"
"AP, seven six two, spent flares... governmental." Edward related. Lilian ran a hand up the bare length of her neck while he spoke, the small moment of intimate self-contact drawing his gaze; Gideon frowned, awaiting the remainder of his conclusion while she passed behind Petrouchka and disappeared into the hall. Edward returned his phone, remaining until the necessary will began to fail him.
"Per'aps we should all go blonde." Gideon remarked as their host left them. "I think his queue put you in charge, Sachiin, so... voilá, my offer." He tore a leaf from his note pad and handed it to William, who screwed it into a ball and leveled a critical gaze at his companion.
"Monsieur hermétique... constipé du morlingue." he mused.
"Don't be so fucking tight. You're choking out the moths."
"Another ten, that is all I can do. Ça va?"
"Another fifteen and I'll blow you in the garage."
"Ten it is." Gideon smiled, taking his chequebook from his pocket.
"I said cash, damn you."
"You say a lot of things, chouchou." The visitor smiled again and handed William a note on his way out. “Be happy.” he urged. “Now you can buy her some good taste in men. Ladies... bon nuit, eh?"
"Mes couilles sur ton nez." William called after him.
“Do you have no clue where we’re going?” Susan sighed as he closed the door.
“I go where I’m told, cloudcheeks. Mr Itinerary just put up the do not disturb sign, so I wouldn’t count on getting anything out of him for twelve hours.”
“Anyway, you can not always know.” Petrouchka observed. “You think, I am going to this place, but, something happen, and then you are in the Ukraine on farm with chicken, and there is no Paris. Sometimes is five star, sometimes goat barn... sometime no barn. These day, if you want to be free, you must go where no one else want.”
“Aren't we there already?" Susan smiled. "At least tell me when we’re leaving.” she added, shrugging her shoulders suddenly as William traced the back of her knees with his fingers from his seat in the chair.
“Ed’s got stuff to choke off downtown, so I’d say we’ve got another week."
In the torpid warmth of evening, the flagged court lying before the great slouching bulk of Helaine's farmhouse seemed unaccountably expanded as Edward slid down from his horse, so accustomed was he to the sight of it under snow. A blacksmith brought his fire-flushed face to the low door of the forge at the east of the yard, brushing the embers from his rawhide apron before emerging to take charge of the horse with all the wordless discretion required of him. The house itself offered no visual welcome, its tar-black timbers standing upright in the ancient manner, thickly-lapped and set with rows of tiny shuttered windows, squinting in unison from all three stories, the first seeming almost pressed into the ground by the weight of the others. The thatch had not survived the pretensions of its resident clan and had been replaced with lumpen brown tiles in the more prosperous manner, greening straw remaining only on the adjoining barn. The little central door, barely wider than the windows with its heavy chevron paneling had been pinned open to admit the breeze into the sunless apartments beyond. The sound of hooves in the yard summoned Agathé; murmuring, she patted down her hair and hurried back into the house.
Helaine came to the entrance in the midst of the half-frowning gravity that was her custom, clearly skeptical of the girl’s announcement. Her dress of fitted black wool was a sombre, widowed contrast to the scandalous flamboyance of her winter attire, her fair hair drawn up in a coronal braid. Her hands came together in an unconscious gesture of delight that was quickly dismissed, though her smile escaped the strictures of dignity, and she wore it down the steps toward him.
“Are we in September already?”
“I regret to trouble you out of season.” Edward admitted. Taking his arm, Helaine felt the stiff catch in his stride and released him, standing on tip toe to pull back the neck of his tunic, then letting it go with a frown.
“But of course.” she sighed, solemn once more.
The evening was briefly admitted to her darkly-paneled chamber by the final rays of sunset, its soft gilt settling on the crimson of the counterpane. Outside, the rose-crowded garden was barely familiar to him, the swaying green and the staring, luminous blooms dimming slowly through the open window. When she cut his tunic from his shoulders and eased it free of him his skin glowed in answer to the fading sky, the brightest element beside the mirrored lantern that she lifted from the sill. Helaine murmured at the sight of the misfortune that had returned him to her. In grotesque opposition stood the broken stubs of two smooth yew bolts shot from siege bows into his left shoulder from high overhead; as thick as two fingers, they seemed curiously inert for all the force that had driven their quatrefoil heads, shafts snapped by the leg of his horse as it had shed him, forming a stubborn nexus where they crossed each other deep in his flesh. She dried her hands, perfumed by the sharp herbs floating in the basin at her feet, and then leant over him, reckoning the intersecting passage of the wood. Her fingers tapped at his back, seeking the peculiar, flattened sound of buried iron.
“Your corps are in Lombardy?" she asked quietly. He nodded. "Were there not wolves amongst them to draw these? Where is your brother?”
“Sachiin bade me bring them to you.” he admitted. She concluded her exam and sat down on a stool, considering his condition gravely.
“Rest first. If I am to do this, you will feel it.” That he was weary from both his wounds and journey was only dimly apparent in the indifference with which he greeted the news; the sight of her doe-soft skin through her shift in the low, square neck of her dress, and the down on her arms where she had rolled back its sleeves added the darker ache of longing to the pain of his injuries.
“I cannot rest as I am.” he sighed.
Both novice girls hove through the door bearing the tools she had sent them after; the heavy smith’s tongs and butchering blades, and a basket of smaller appurtenance. Helaine dismissed them when they had lain the implements out on the bed and fallen to staring at his condition. Their disappointment at their exclusion lingered after their departure.
She found the slim junction between two plates of bone armouring his back and marked the place with a thin stroke of kohl, then sat back down on the stool, selecting a knife and trimming the ragged end of the lowest shaft, brushing away the splinters.
"Try to be still.” Helaine set a smooth, doweled length of chestnut to the end of the shaft and chose a heavy mallet, allowed him time to compose himself, and then struck quickly, driving the dowel deep into the wound after the retreating bolt. Rising to glance over his shoulder, she corrected her aim and struck the dowel three times more, directing the pointed head between the intervening bone and watching it break through the skin of his back, where she drew it out with forge tongs, their grip skidding along the buried wood.
“How are the fields?” he asked, closing his eyes and propping his elbow on his knee as he recovered, watching her drop the broken bolt into the basin.
“They were planted, but I can find no hands, and the swine root in the barley. More than that I cannot tell you.” The relief allowed him to settle a little more easily while she stood between his leg and the down-stuffed mattress, rehearsing a succession of holds upon the object remaining in his shoulder with the cumbersome tongs. “You will come north for the trouble in Vienna?”
“I fear so. We are poorly supplied.”
"Kneel.” she told him, giving him a cup of bitter liquor and waiting while he drank it. He let himself down onto the floorboards before her.
“I do not mean to grieve you by serving so long.”
“I do not believe you know how to live with another for the whole of a year.”
“No one has ever desired such a thing of me.”
“I have desired it.” she assured him, resignation dulling its reproach. “But I see now that you do not enjoy me as I do you, and such things will be, if I abide or do not abide them.” The knife blade cut down through his skin on either side of the embedded wood, creating an extra inch of purchase in the knowledge that he would not object to the expedient. She set the tongs, clamping their jaws into the yew with both fists.
“How did you come to this wisdom?”
Helaine glanced down at his inquiring gaze.
“You are an excellent tutor. Once I begin I should not stop... if you cannot bear it you must tell me.” she advised.
With all the strength in both arms she dragged the buried shaft backward through his flesh against the direction of its barbed head, expressing her disgust as it caught on the bone spanning his shoulder and refused her. She changed her grasp and made another attempt, twisting it sideways until he stayed her and leant against the wall with his eyes closed. Her hand found his forehead and stroked it slowly, and his own closed on the fabric of her skirt, finding obscure solace. When she had amended the angle of extraction the bolt tore quickly free, its departure leaving a star-shaped hollow in his skin that closed with the movement of his arm.
The peace that returned was felt by them both, lying as cool as melt water in the darkness, the candle burning low inside the silvered glass, the sound of her black silk slippers on the boards as she cleared the tools from the quilt as much comfort to him as any articulate consolation. A tall ewer of painted tin stood on the far side of the bed, filled with a great sheaf of cloud-white roses.
“Lie quietly." she sighed, drawing back the bedclothes for him. "You will be well enough to vanish in the morning.” Emptying the basin from the window, she left him alone.
An hour of her absence passed unmarked into another, her chamber standing around him in implacable witness. A clean shift hung airing by the door, the thin garment moved now and then by the breeze that encircled the room. The bed held the scent of her skin, and he lay a hand on the side that she favoured, the memory of her slow breathing, her body lying by his own tormenting his injury with the unfailing desire that arose from any such thought of her. He rolled slowly onto his side, found no relief, and sat back again, staring at the dour oak and cursing the house's thickly-partitioned scale for keeping all sound and knowledge of her private, as though in active conspiracy. The suggestion of darkness was replaced by its reality with the approach of midnight, the proud basso calls of the owls that quartered the woods drifting in over the sill with the lingering smell of the forge, a thin ribbon of steam still ghosting from its doused furnace. In the rooms below his own, Adelle and Agathé offered chanted prayers to the deities and elements invoked in the course of the vernal cycle, striking bells, lighting little pressed cakes of cedar dust and rose oil, and offering blood from holes stabbed into the heels of their palms.
Edward set his feet upon the boards at the side of the bed, looking down to see the small Melas rug that he had given her laid out beneath them. Behind the bedside cabinet he glimpsed the toes of a pair of boots, and lifted the cloth laid over them against the dust; they had been commissioned to satisfy the eccentric requirements of his own physiology and executed with the exquisite, almost pitiful care demanded by Helaine’s patronage.
He found her seated at the table in the midst of the dining hall occupying the rear third of the ground floor, her face and neck overpainted by the colours of the candle lamp beside her book. Her lonely station and the dullness of the text had worked together, as she had hoped, to tire her. Edward sat slowly and set the boots on the table between them. Still nursing his shoulder, he reached across for the slender pipe that she had left at her elbow amid the soigné lacquer suite to which it belonged. The act brought her gaze to him; she took it back and tipped its brittle ash into the bowl beside the lamp, tempering a new bead of tar before returning the loaded implement.
“The time we lose is lost to us both.” she told him, resting her chin on her hand. “I have no thousand years to wait for you, nor have I words to slow or speed the days. They bleed from me when you are gone... one evening, sooner than you imagine, you shall come here from Lombardy, or Paris or Navarre, and find no one to meet you.” The sight of the boots drew her hand to them, and she slid them toward herself, blowing off the dust they had collected in awaiting him. “I thought if you were to wear these, the christians would believe you were saved, and not guess that they were meant to tread them under.”
He smiled at her saturnine rationale.
“A week in them and I will be too lame to leave in any case.”
“Stay with me, Kala'amātya. I will not ask again. What do you say?”
Lilian opened her eyes to the sound of taps screwed tightly in the bathroom and found herself lying on her side with her head upon her arm, the morning raising gooseflesh on her shoulders. Edward pushed a towel back over his damp hair as he returned to the bedroom. Watching him, she stretched out beneath the black sheet slowly, then drew it from her breasts and the long, lazy curve of her hip, arranged by languor and renascent lust as she lay in an invitation that was not immediately accepted. While he stood fastening his shirt, her knee rose and described a narrow apex, her hand sliding down over her stomach and descending between her naked thighs. She closed her eyes; for a while, she heard nothing more from him and wondered if she were not alone, until the bedclothes creased beneath her and her ankle was encircled in a grasp that pulled her toward the end of the bed, his belt hissing faintly against the fabric of his trousers as he removed it. Lilian rose, her lips moving against the smooth span of skin beneath his navel, so faintly scored with the ghosts of misfortune, her hands closing on his hips. He was exclusively her own beneath his clothing, as constant as her reflection, a realm of landmarked flesh ruled by those obscure doctrines prevailing in hers; the art and warm, surpassing luxury of her mouth brought her name to his, and his hands into her pale, tangled hair, resisting for a moment the primary urge that had returned him to her. She looked up at him, and leant back slowly on her elbows, drawing up her legs.
“Always go to the bank smelling like the last whore you fucked.” she smiled, the final syllables sucked sharply inward as he spread her legs and applied himself to the suggestion. Her kiss began in his mouth and descended his neck, her breath hot between her teeth as she closed them hard upon his shoulder, raising the taste of his blood from the star-shaped scar still buried in his skin. He used his weight against her exigency, slowing her until she began to subvert the imposition, feet sliding on the sheets as she twisted beneath him. Catching her knee, he drew it over his shoulder, delivering the unsparing emphasis that she enjoyed in silence, until it returned a half-forgotten notion.
“I want people to look at you and know exactly how this feels."
“If anyone else knew how this felt I’d cut their throat.” he promised.
“You are this to me.” she whispered. “If not you, then no one.”
Susan looked up from her purse mirror, moving slowly to wipe away the lipstick she no longer favoured, aware her every movement was closely weighed by two pairs of watchful eyes and tall, attentive ears. A slender doe and her half-grown companion nosed acorns on the lawn before her, shadowed branches figuring their mouse-brown coats in the mid-morning sun. The pair had drifted closer during her patient vigil on the porch steps; guessing the hour, she blew a sigh that overrode the sound of Edward’s descent, starting when he walked past her in the darkness of a new suit. The deer did not lift their heads though he stood only a few metres distant, back to them as he knotted his tie. He wore an uncharacteristic pair of sunglasses and under their effacing influence looked so exactly like his brother that Susan was astounded that such iteration could arise from conceptive obscurity.
"Sis'thle bai'in." he said, passing the remark briefly over his shoulder to the cervine invaders, who gave over grazing and moved off through the gates toward the hillside. Touching a hand to the shape of the knot beneath his chin, he walked to the other side of the sedan while Susan scrambled to gather her accoutrement, standing to brush off her skirt.
“William said you were going into town...” she called. He sat down behind the wheel. “I was wondering if I could... go with you...”
“I don’t know when I'll be back.”
“I don’t mind... I just have to get my money out.” she assured him. If he debated the prospect privately he gave no further sign and Susan fashioned the silence into assent, though with her hand upon the passenger door she hesitated, sinking down into the seat only when he glanced up at her from behind the glasses. A slim black case stood in her leg well, and she set it aside carefully.
Edward drove with more circumspection than his brother, slowing at the corners rather than floating out across the last available inch of tarmac. After William's car, the sedan's interior seemed as bland and spotless as the features of a department store mannequin. He made two francophonic phone calls, discoursing with such uninhibited fluency that she turned to stare at his profile, startled by the softness and volubility of his voice outside the strictures of her own language. She reached across to engage the climate control and directed a blast of warm air toward herself; he looked at her pointedly, and she murmured, switching it off. Under any other circumstance she might have admired indifference to the tyrannous exactions of smalltalk, but his devotion to the road in the face of her difficulties extinguished all such considerations. In search of a tissue she began to explore the blank face of the glove compartment, gently pressing and tugging the panels in an unrewarding process of elimination. The small compliment of buttons beside it issued invitation to her thwarted fingers, but his glance deterred her, and she sat back. The heavy car rocked slowly with the contour of the road, invoking one of the rolling bouts of nausea that had troubled her recovery.
“It's the blood loss.” Edward told her. "Put your head between your knees."
As she leant over he looked down at the gouges on her neck where the vampyre’s fingernails had torn her skin. They had healed well, the scars passing into the dark blue of her hair. With her eyes closed she reviewed the fragmentary memory of his presence at the exorcism, its visuals confused by intrusive notions of his fraternal resemblance, though Susan was struck most by the intangible deficits that distinguished him from William, all that had bloomed in one and failed in the other. She pondered them, addressing him again in her own time when she sat up.
“I thanked you, didn’t I? For helping me, after...”
“I’m so hungry, and tired, god..." Her scrutiny earned his attention where her inquiries had not. "I know you think I'm a gigantic idiot, but I didn't mean for the Siobhan thing to happen, if that's what you're worried about."
“I don’t believe you so unconscious of your own shortcomings that you would deliberately solicit more.” he said finally, though in her afflicted state his eschewal of the vernacular made him more difficult than ever to comprehend. She set her elbow on the door, winding a knot into her hair as she scowled again to herself, allowing the roadside properties to pass in an autumnal blur.
"Is it me, personally? That you don't like..."
"I don't entertain any particular sentiment toward you." he assured her. Susan nodded to herself slowly.
"So, almost blowing my head off wasn't personal? That Nyāti cow put you up to it, didn't she?"
"No... I'm sure it never crossed her mind." she muttered. "So... if it's not personal, it mu..."
"From a professional perspective I could say you're everything I need to make Sachiin do whatever I want. Is that what you wanted to hear?"
"And Lilian's not?"
"My brother labours under a number of difficulties. His trouble with no can prove catastrophic. There was a point when you should have said it for both of you."
She let four or five kilometres pass under the wheels before responding.
"Why help me, then?" The colour of her eyes underscored the solemn tone of the inquiry. "You could have just... let me go... blamed everything on Siobhan. Why did you bother?"
"What happens under my roof is my responsibility." he replied.
She let a similar distance elapse while she explored the rationale, accepting its sincerity.
"Edward... I hate this. I hate pretending that's your name, I hate sneaking round the house like a complete twat trying to avoid you, and I really hate you thinking I am one, so can we just... not be so... like that?" she proposed. "I don't entertain any sentiments toward you, either." His use of silence caused her a small, wry smile. “That can't be everything, surely...”
“What were you expecting?”
“More of a lecture.”
"I can't claim to have ever taken much advice myself."
She looked back at him from the window, tucking hair behind her ears.
"I wasn't lying about Caleb's... everyone really does think it was you."
"Aren't you bothered?"
"Never hand the truth to someone perfectly content with gossip." he murmured. Its occult logic abashed the judgements she had intended.
“I don't know how you keep everything so tidy."
“Repression. It's simple. Hygienic."
"So you... what? Repress everything?" The dismay that overtook her incredulity prompted them to look away from one another, Susan almost glad of the nausea that distracted her from the idea.
William reached across the mattress and yanked the shunga scroll from the hands of the lycanthrope absorbed in its graphic erotica and dumped it into a drawer of the blood-red chest, taking his place at one end and bending to reach beneath its carcass. Luc rolled from the bed and at the count of three they heaved the chest toward the doors, tripping on the curling edge of a tulu, both of them cursing Gideon’s consignment of his services. Squeezing out into the hallway with their burden, they were met by Étienne and the fat joint he had constructed while secluding himself in the kitchen. William confiscated it and administered a punitive flick to the latter’s new piercing, catching him off guard. From cradling his affronted nose the lycanthrope lifted his hands and ran them hastily over his hair, straightening up and brushing off his pale blue shirt, a process echoed with peculiar fidelity by Luc, who added a moody gaze to the rakish posture they had both adopted. The click of Lilian’s tall black pumps slowed as she was confronted with them.
“You fucking losers can die trying on your own time.” William remarked. “Get this shit down the stairs or I’ll tell Kala'amātya you were dogging his piece.” He squeezed past the door frame toward her, scowling at their soi-disant allure and walking back along the hall with her in the nominal hope of privacy, closing the door to Edward's suite behind them.
A pane of sunlight slid over the matte black of her suit as she walked past the window, the shadow of an elm bough lying on the floor around her feet. Her face was lightly powdered, a slim, dark line painted over her lashes; when she looked at him he could see the strange marriage of desperation and impassivity in the black circles fixed so tightly in the centre of her eyes. Toward the bathroom door her clothing rack stood emptied. William glanced down at the suitcase by the foot of the bed and then at the phone she held out to him.
“Call me a cab.” Lilian insisted. When he made no move to comply she lifted a hand to her brow as though something kicked against the inside of her skull.
He took the phone from her and sat down on the corner of the bed.
“I have dreams about him sometimes... he's always an animal in the hold of a plane that's breaking up at thirty thousand feet... I can't do anything, but I get to watch.” he told her. “I lost him when Helaine died, for four hundred years. If you go, I lose you both.” She stood looking down at the floor. "What does she say?" he asked quietly, looking up as she leant her head against the window.
"She came to say goodbye, because he needed that, but... the more she holds his hand... If you don’t help me leave, she'll fucking stay with him, and you’ll have to watch that too.”
William murmured to himself in his own language, pressing his hands to his face as she sat down beside him. The dry, powdery scent of the orris in her perfume reminded him again of her avatar, the smell of Helaine's fields swept up across the river to her house; he saw his brother sitting with her in the kitchen door of that ancient pile while she read from the creaking volume on her knees.
“Where are you going?” he sighed.
“I got a trick waiting... it’s fine. I’m good.”
"Fuck." William closed his eyes. He reached slowly into the pocket of his dirty jeans, pulling out a business card and handing it to her, then spoke carefully, conscious of the rote, suspended nature of her gaze. “This is Gideon... he’s in France. If you’re in trouble, if you ever need anything... he doesn’t ask questions, and he knows where to find us.” He looked down at the phone and turned it over in his hand.
Susan walked with Edward through the sliding doors into a branch of her domestic bank, feeling the immediate, gravitational assault of the attention he so unwillingly commanded. One by one, as though in response to an audible demand, the clerks and store assistants in the teller queues turned to satisfy their curiosity; security guards shifted in their shoes without knowing why, touching hands to the equipment on their belts and frowning. She was appraised for the first time of the manner in which William absorbed and diffused such unwelcome notice, sheltering her from its effect. Edward's person offered no such concession. He performed instead the discreet examination of the room that was his first act in any new situation, turning gazes from himself with a retaliatory sweep of his own. Perforated ceiling tiles floated overhead; the new carpet, printed with busy triangular motifs in scarlet and grey, smelt strongly of solvent-rich glue. Susan murmured her inquiries.
“Should I close my account? Won't that look like I'm planning to leave or something?”
"Withdraw two thirds of whatever you have." he replied.
The teller processed her demands with bored efficiency, her neat bleached hair crowned by a white halo of static-riven frizz, glancing past her repeatedly as she worked the keyboard. Susan looked back to her companion herself; his gaze was focussed squarely through the wide glass frontage and on something in the street outside. Rejoining him, she stood stiffly at his side, clutching a half-crushed printout.
"Someone's ripped me off!" she whispered. He perused the transactions briefly, and took out his wallet, discreetly handing her the sum in cash, which she initially refused, and then stuffed into her bag, shaking her head. "You owe me a month anyway." she muttered as they returned to the street, making a lightning dash through the traffic and coming back to the car with a plastic-wrapped bunch of pink chrysanthemums, a white paper bag that grease had already rendered half-translucent, a large milkshake and a sack of sugar-dusted donuts, handing him the flowers and pressing her face into the paper as she slumped down beside him. “How long has it been since I had a kebab?" Susan sighed, chewing busily. "What I could actually murder right now is a whole tandoori chicken dripping with ghee, and a great big bloody Kashmir naan..."
The frigid milkshake tingled in her sinuses as she drew on the thick blue straw, gaze wandering to the blooms with which he had been so unceremoniously presented. She plucked one of the slightly ragged flowers from its stalk and bit into it herself, pulling a face and spitting it out the window. He refused the donut she offered in compensation, watching cinnamon-tainted sugar drop into her lap as she stuffed it into her mouth. The sight of a huge oil-black SUV in her side mirror attracted her attention with its polished panels and darkly obscure windscreen, crawling two cars behind their own. Eating the rest of the donuts in a brown study, she watched the vehicle for three more blocks before fishing her sunglasses from her tote and sliding them onto her face.
“This sounds stupidly paranoid, but I think that great big thing back there is following us.”
“It’s not those... what are they? Something Investigation muppets?” He did not respond to her speculation and she blew a frustrated breath, scowling over her milk shake at him. “Well I don’t know... I didn’t join the secret bloody service in my gap year.”
“You can see them. Perhaps you studied logic in your gap year.”
“I couldn’t afford the fees and had to work for sarcastic people instead.” She spat out the straw. “Alright, so I can see them, which means... they’re not trying to hide... which means... they want us to see them because they’re trying to... intimidate us?”
“Are we intimidated?”
Edward planted his foot and cut over the sidewalk, in front of a car already occupying a parking building entry lane; they ducked the boom, skirted a reversing van and took six ramps in a smoking drift, climbing four more toward the roof at a slightly more leisurely pace while Susan squeezed between the front seats and knelt upon the rear, blowing bubbles into her lidded cup. She hung out of the window and peered down into the floors beneath them.
“Bastards! They're still there... what should we do?"
He chose a park in the midst of the floor, circled the car and caught her elbow, marching her swiftly across the tarmac toward the lift bay. She chuckled to herself inside the mirrored compartment as the purpose of their eccentric detour occurred to her, shuddering at the pungent yellow brass and faux marble mall scape revealed by their debouchment. They walked together through a flock of preening teenage girls, their dour, thickly-pencilled stares following Edward as the latter accompanied her toward an outdoor retailer. Glancing over her shoulder, she took some time to look both ways along the crowded aisle, then disappeared with him into the head-high racks of pastel puffer vests and stripy thermals.
"The House always wins." he mused.
“I know, alright, but if we have to come into a mall we should make it count. I need some gear for wherever we're headed anyway. And you can stand there with your death ray going but you shop for underpants like everybody else, so can we just get on with it?"
Tugging items from the displays on her way toward the changing rooms, she stuffed the overflow into his arms but Edward abandoned the pieces as fast as he was entrusted with them; he took the remaining clothing from her, dropped it onto the attending counter and walked away toward the men’s department. Susan strode after him, folding her arms against the lengthy, number-coloured parka that he handed her.
“It looks like it fell off a skip. Or a wino." Compounding her dismay, he chose a drab brace of thermal underwear and hiking pants, wholly unconcerned by her displeasure. "I'm not a fucking trainspotting troll!" she hissed, glancing around them. His patience shorted when she refused even to examine them for herself, eyes brightening like a glimpse of distant hazard lights. Susan stood in her defiant attitude for as long as she dared, then trailed him toward the counter.
“All you need worry about is how fast it will dry in the shade. And how you’ll look to twelve drunk paramilitaries while they’re still only joking about who goes first.” he informed her, looking toward the till girl's open-mouthed dismay. Susan's gaze rose, wide and vehement; from his height and with his stare he invited her to contradict him, and they suffered deadlock until she felt her pique subside, finding points of interest in his tactics.
“Does that work on Lilian?” she asked. Edward took money from his pocket and dropped it on the chair beside the clothes, leaving her to carry them herself.
Nursing an enormous soft-serve ice cream in her free hand as the elevator returned her to the car park, she performed a watchful traverse of the bays, both elbows weighed down with bags that she threw onto the back seat, cracking the stiffening chocolate at the top of the cup with a plastic spoon as she sat down.
“I know going on the lam probably isn't a picnic, and I know you’re trying to get that through my thick skull, but sometimes I just have to stick my fingers in my ears and go la la la first.” she confessed, dragging a bag into her lap to show him the items she had acceded to. “See? Neutrals. I’m sure I’ll have plenty of time to sew my name into them on the train to Crapistan. It's going to be bad, isn't it... where we're going?"
"Everything is relative." he said, looking pointedly at the handles of another, smaller bag beneath her thigh. Frowning, she hauled it out and discovered a forest-green presentation box, compressed by her unwitting weight; it contained a hunting blade with an antler hilt, its gift card left blank. She smiled at him and tossed the box over the seat, dropping the knife into her handbag.
The windscreen framed a view of the vehicle that had prompted their excursion as they reversed and swung past its position between two supply vans. It continued after them until Edward engaged the hand brake at the foot of the descending ramp; behind them, the pursuing vehicle was forced to a halt, boxed in by tail-gaters, and she whispered a furious caution as he pushed open his door and walked back up the ramp. He stood gazing in through the windscreen; Susan's disquiet gave way to appreciation of his unorthodox gambit as he returned.
“Who are our numpty stalkers?" she murmured, looking back between the seats.
“Nothing exotic. Low-ball contractors... geriatric Special Forces, dishonourable discharges."
"Judging by the taste level."
"Wouldn't you feel like a dick following someone around all day?" she wondered, scooping out the bottom of her ice cream.
"Viagra and hair plugs won't pay for themselves." She smirked into her cup at the ungenerous sentiment. “Were you not tempted to stay at the house and supervise? I wouldn’t advise leaving Sachiin with Auberjonois’s entourage for longer than it takes to source hash and pornography.”
"I don't care. They probably don’t accidentally touch you inappropriately twenty eight times before nine o’clock in the morning."
“I assume he and Gideon have resolved their glittering differences.”
“You're asking the wrong person.” she assured him. “Why? Is it just because he loses his pants in the woods, or is there something else I should know?”
“Auberjonois is not my field.”
They rode in silence until she muttered and began scratching at her neck.
“Are you going to sue Opal for being a horrible bloodsucking trout?” she asked, brightening.
“There are no applicable statutes.” Edward admitted, pulling up outside a manicured brownstone while their pursuers continued onward. “Keep your eye on the road. There’s a full clip under my seat if you don’t like the way things are going.” he told her. She scowled.
“I'm not a bloody gangbanger.”
“They’ll be pleased to hear that.”
In contrast to his gently-domiciled legal representation, Edward's bankers inhabited an elephantine tower of blackly gleaming, gneiss-like plate, a single legend etched into a stainless plaque beside its entrance. Susan looked from the sinister quarters to its client, allowing her seat belt to retract slowly through both hands as her smile widened.
“Oh go on... I took you into my bank.” She stripped off her coat and fell in behind him as he crossed the pavement with the slender black case.
An aegis-like desk formed both a greeting and a barrier across the midst of a vast reception shaded by dark glass walls that soared away into the waist of the tower, the sound of their feet on the stone floor echoing back at them in soft, delayed confusion. Behind the sweep of granite and veneer two brunettes stood like a matched pair of horses in their Prussian blue livery; they treated Edward to a fulsome greeting, smiles expanding and decaying in unison. The ambience that had always flagged the thought of wealth in Susan’s estimation was freshly embodied in the smell of polished metal, computer terminals and a simple bass note of exclusivity itself, the green tang of a dollar bill rolled into the ghost of wood smoke. Her companion completed the required codes and exchanges at the scrupulously polite behest of the fractionally taller woman, who led them to the end of the counter.
“This way please, Mr Alton.” she suggested. Susan’s frown flew to his profile; he ignored it, glancing at the guards who nodded in deference and allowing their guide to discharge her brief spiel while she admitted them to a narrow, glass-walled antechamber, then stepped back from the sliding door beyond. They were left to enter the spacious vault alone. It was faced entirely with rows of numbered silver partitions, their monotony extending to the two low desks fabricated of the same brushed metal; they occupied the middle of the alcove, like altars to the mysteries entombed around them. Susan gazed in a circle until it began to affect her balance.
"I can't believe I'm actually standing inside one of these things."
“We're phasing them out."
"Why?" He held up one of his irregular hands. "Oh, right... biometrics." She frowned in sympathy with his predicament. “Having this much money seems more trouble than it’s worth.”
Edward stood staring at the wall before him.
“I gave up a black tent in the Empty Quarter to come here, and I don’t remember why.”
"Why do you bother?”
“This is the West. Being poor is too expensive.”
“I know. You were only paying me two fifty a week.” Susan folded her arms against the chill of the vault and watched him unlock the first cache, drawing out the smooth compartment and bearing it toward her. “It's got to be well strange, choosing your own name.” she added as he sorted through the enclosed documentation.
“Sachiin asks a woman to guess.”
“Really? How long have you been Edward?”
“Drunk heiress, house party in the Loire. First half of the fifteenth century.”
"It doesn't suit you."
"I am aware of that."
"Who were you before?"
"I don't remember."
“So... I only think of him as William because of some trolleyed French tart, five hundred years ago?” Edward left the table for the other wall. “How do they say it? Guillaume?” She laughed to herself at the dubious sound of the word, and regretted the lack of nerve preventing her extending her enquiries; as if to underscore the inadvisability of doing so, Edward stood looking into the second deposit box for a moment before slamming it back into the wall and turning in the midst of a suddenly-visible state, for once so poorly contained that she slid carefully from the desk and retreated behind its furthest end. He watched her without explaining himself, a thick, white piece of paper grasped in his hand. Unwilling to goad him further with timidity, Susan came forward, watching his face all the while, and slid the note carefully from between his fingers, only to find that she could not understand its printed Latin maxim.
“Where now does the sun shine?” he muttered, translating for her.
“Was it imp...”
“Four deeds, sixty eight carats, six hundred and twenty seven thousand, five hundred and sixty six dollars US.” He stood with his arms by his sides, re-imposing moderation, however extrinsic, while consequences and implications rolled out and concatenated of their own accord. She reached down into her bag, offering him the money he had gifted her. Though he refused it with a look the spirit behind the gesture was accepted and seemed slowly to relieve his most unsettling elements, winding back the stunning, whiplash process that had rendered him a stranger.
“I don’t think Opal leaves fuck you notes in Latin.” she concluded, hands on hips. Edward brought the first box to the table and cleared its contents into his black case.
"Old World undead standard operating procedure. Incorporate the willing, strip and pillory dissenters. We fall into the second category, and now, so do you. Félicitations."
"Well, I could have ended up one of them." She groaned into her hands. "Oh god... why does anyone care about this bollocks? Why can't they just suck blood and mind their own fucking business?"
"They're human before anything else. It's an intrinsically totalitarian condition."
"Don't call me intrinsically totalitarian, and you're partly human... I suppose we're just lucky whatever else you are doesn't like politics. If your brother was here he'd ask who we have to fuck to get out of this, so I'll just go with that."
"The Bailiss." Her blank look prompted him to expatiate. "Vampyres are a nation, a nation needs a figurehead. They appointed a notary, an administrator, stationed in Praha. The current one burnt his predecessor in the sixteenth century, recruited a praetorian guard and has been extending tentacles ever since." He fastened the catches. "Who could have predicted something like that?”
"Is it hard, being right all the time?"
"Marginally less so than the alternative." Edward consulted his phone once again, studying the appliance in apparent resignation.
"Shall we... I don't know... just go and have a cup of tea or something?
“I am going to meet Nyāti. Wait in the car”
He walked from the foot of the black tower some time later; Susan stood on the footpath, arms akimbo, glaring at their blurred and impoverished reflections in the side of the SUV that had blocked in his sedan. She looked over her shoulder at his approach.
"Give them the finger." she urged, lifting her own to do so then letting it fall as she watched him reach almost into his coat, a motion of intent that sent the vehicle on its way.
The last hours of the afternoon had drawn enough heat from the sun to recall a more vernal incarnation by the time they had found the nominated café, visiting on the pedestrian leg of their journey a hunting boutique that had caught Edward’s unfailing eye. Susan found herself encumbered with an oil-green anorak and gaiters in spite of her stony-faced opposition, and humped the glossy bag through wrought-iron tables into the shade of a plane tree pressed between two blocks of gentrified brick. Despite her annoyance she was struck by the figure awaiting them in the spotted shade, enclosed in an elegant dove-grey trench, a heavy string of fat, vivid turquoise beads wound around the pallor of her neck. Nyāti watched Edward leave room for Susan across the table from her and the latter sat down before them, forming the notion that the two seemed like halves of the same forbidding animal. They spoke quietly to one another, exchanging some cursory greeting. Susan glanced at the menu and conferred her selection to a waiter, frowning at Nyāti's unblinking interest.
“She seems to have survived your strenuous attempts to dispatch her.” the latter remarked cooly, the disclosure prompting Susan to look purposefully toward Edward.
“Young people today.” he replied. “I’m prepared to accept the commission, but I don’t get out of bed for less than a hundred thousand US per individual, inclusive of disposal and a limited schedule of expenses. She'll float as she is. I'll need a new chainsaw.”
“I'm less inclined than you to throw money at Sachiin’s mistakes.” said Nyāti, clearly weary of the subject.
Susan sat with her bags propped on her lap.
“And I don't really want to die just at the moment.” she scowled. “Mind you, I haven’t been forced to wear this yet.” she added, shaking the anorak out of its plastic cowl and holding it up in both hands. “He did have a go at killing me, but he’s either going soft in his old age or he forgot the bullets and just didn’t want to say anything.”
“You must have been born lucky.” Nyāti replied to her facetiousness. Susan shrugged.
"I suppose we can't all be perfect."
“We’re leaving sometime in the next two weeks. I suggest you do the same.” said Edward.
“I’m going today. Frankfurt, and then on to Nepal... if I see no articulate creature for another century, I will consider myself blessed.” She seemed to have at last expressed a sentiment to which he could subscribe; Nyāti steered their conversation into unintelligibility, and Susan set down her bags and made for the bar in the rear of the converted terrace. Seating herself at the counter, she nodded to the barman’s offer of a lager and answered her phone, relieved to hear William’s voice over strident rocksteady.
“Packed up?” she inquired.
“Getting there.” He sounded weary, half-troubled.
“Nothing... just... baked.”
“Make sure none of them drive the truck into town with a bong in their face because I don’t think today’s the day we need to be bailing anyone out or having things confiscated.” she sighed, sipping the froth on her beer. “Someone cleaned out your brother’s bank vault thingy, and mine... he’s not very happy.”
William let the phone fall for a moment.
“Is he still talking?”
“Don’t let him go quiet... distract him.” A waiter emerged from the kitchen with her order and she slid down from the stool, following him out.
"You're scaring me now. What is it, for god’s sake?”
“Frost’s gone.” he sighed. “She lost her shit and ran. I couldn’t stop her.”
“You mean you didn’t try."
“Christabel, if she’d wanted to be chained to a headboard... I think we both know how that sentence ends. We’ll just... let him find out for himself...”
She choked on a mouthful of beer.
“Are you mad? He’ll go absolutely fucking mental!”
“We don't know that... maybe he’s... already over it...” William pressed his palm to his eye, despairing at the pathetic nature of the assurance.
“Your brother is a six foot four inch repressed homicidal maniac who never deals with anything! He just told me that himself! Have you stood next to him lately? Do you know how big he is? I'm stuck here with him...”
“We’re all the same size.”
“The only person he ever listens to just pink slipped his arse and went back on the fucking stroll.”
“You should have made Lilian tell him... this is her bloody mess.” she complained. “I have to go... I only ordered steak so I could eat it in front of Nyāti. I’ll tell him, alright? Just... don't do anything else stupid.”
Back at the table, her companions' implacable antipathy transformed the consumption of her jus-dressed rib eye into the defilement of some echoing sanctum beneath the sacred golden gazes of its statuary. Only the urging of her own biology allowed her to press on, hunching over her plate and sawing quickly at the grilled flesh while her eyes fell to the highest element in the scarified design descending from the base of Nyāti's throat. Beneath the turquoise beads it spiraled in two opposing directions before disappearing under her collar, suggesting curving horns, or some double headed serpent. Her substance had resisted exile, existing in its impossibly distant remove like strung pearls recalling the forsaken sea. Susan could see something of the same in Edward, though the loss had closed over inside him.
“What of Rana?” Nyāti asked, returning to their conversation.
“I don't possess the authority to question her divine imperative.” he replied.
“So you leave her to these creatures. And what becomes of this unprincipled preoccupation of your own? Which imperatives prevail in her respect?” Nyāti replied to his silence with an incisive stare. “Another fortunate soul. You must both treasure the thought you gave to the consequences of your patronage before extending it. Will you hand her directly to the interested parties before you go, or let her think she has a start on them?”
“You’d say the same thing if I were forcing her to leave with me.” he told her. She frowned faintly at his response, following his gaze as though hearing something more.
“Until now, I would have never suspected you of wanting to.” she assured him. “Whoever she is, Kala'amātya... let her go. None of this becomes you.”
“Speaking of expedient repudiations, have you heard anything from Avi'ashān, or does he cease to have ever been?”
Nyāti accepted the retaliation with the same dark brand of contained displeasure, retaining his attention as she set down her glass, the sun casting shifting white refraction through its contents onto the table cloth. She stood up.
“There is blood on your face.” she informed Susan, by way of farewell. Fishing a mirror from her handbag, the latter wiped at the corner of her mouth, glancing across to Edward, who had sat back in his chair and lapsed into staring in the direction of the bar.
"Cow." she muttered. She nursed what remained of her beer and then drained it, reclaiming his attention with the grave use of his name, glad of the table between them, and of the strangers sitting behind her. “I was just talking to William, and... I don't know how to say this, so... Lilian left this morning. I mean, for good. I'm sorry.”
She was deeply relieved that he did not seem surprised. Edward's gaze fell to the table, then moved slowly past her, losing itself in the distant dust-red of the brick wall. That he did not wish to speak was plain, but he did so, in recognition of her struggle.
“In’sha’Allah.” he said quietly, the phrase weighted with such charred fatalism that she yearned to contradict him.
“Did you ask her to come with us?”
“I can offer her nothing more than Sachiin offers you.” The admission settled like a pair of cold hands on her face and she was reminded of the first time she had spoken to him, though it was the absence and not the weight of sanction that impressed her, the knowledge that her observations enjoyed passage after all, alighting within him in unseen forms.
"It couldn't have been easy for her to go." she sighed. "But if she has..." A breeze shifted the slender, half-denuded branches overhead; she abandoned her suggestion and brushed the leaves from the auction catalogue he had neglected, thumbing aimlessly through the pages, absorbing little of its contents and returning to the cover image of a slender Tibetan Avalokiteśvara figure carved of smoke-stained wood, long robes sinuously plicated, the swept curvature of her gaze reprised in Edward’s. She remembered William's advice about his silence and forced herself to intrude upon it once more. “Gideon’s stuff does look incredibly stolen.” She turned the featured image toward him. "That looks like your grandmother.”
“Our grandmother went into the sea when Sachiin was born.”
“My god... why?"
“Two grandsons. Social death."
“And he’s almost a girl after all.” she smiled ruefully.
“I would say to tell her when you meet her, but she'll be in the hell for orthodox hypocrites, and you and Sachiin will be in the one for the people who never listened.”
“What about you?”
“I'm already there.”
Susan followed his lead out through the bar and across the road with her bags, catching him up in the shadow of their alley park. She let herself into the car uncertainly and looked through the window at him in section, his almost disembodied hands such fearsome artifacts though powerless to effect his only meaningful desire; he stood in a darkness he saw nothing of, rain-curled bills fluttering on the walls behind him. Content to allow him the time he needed, she lay back in her seat, remonstrating mentally with Lilian and William until her companion stooped to join her.
"SUV twats." she muttered, directing his glance to the rear view mirror. The party in question had parked across the mouth of the alley some way behind them, sealing it off; he released the brake, their wheels spinning then throwing them forward over wet cardboard and rotten pallet wood into the intersecting depths of a decrepit byway. "I don't think you can get out this way..." she warned, bracing her hands against the dash at the sight of a stockade of padlocked chain-link in the gloom before them. Choosing reverse, Edward drew them backward in an arc that halted in a bay adjacent to the alley, a forgotten sinus stuffed with sodden, discarded shapes of sheenless cinder-grey, cradled by towering conjunctions of Victorian brick. Fire escapes sagged like the blackened skeletons of giant reptiles blasted in the act of scaling the rust-streaked walls on either side.
She settled back into her seat, eyes wide in the darkness while her companion drew the slender case from alongside her legs and flipped it open. Staring blankly while he locked a series of satin-black elements together in both hands, she swore as it resolved into an elongate pistol, turning to struggle with her seat belt, prompting him to pause and lock her door remotely. The headlights of the pursuing vehicle played across the lower courses of the walls before them, the alley filling with the thick chug of its engine. He kicked open the door while Susan sank down at the sight of it edging past the black mouth of the bay, sliding into the footwell as the driver swept a spot across the brick and mounds of boxes, its hueless eye burning through the windscreen on the full as it slowed to a standstill. Edward stepped out from the wall into the beam and raised his pistol to the driver's window.
Five rounds flew in bursts of silver-white and the hard, cuffing knock of struck steel, denatured by the suppressor but still so loud that she contracted into a ball and covered her head with both arms. The sound of Edward's stride preceded him; he swung the weapon to cool it as he returned, drawing open the door and bringing with him the narrow, needling smell of scorched metal.
"Get up." he told her, the words dulled by the whine in her ears. She demurred, remaining in her static hunch until his fingers changed their grip upon the gleaming object in their grasp, spurring her to crawl back quickly into her seat. He gazed at her wordlessly as he resumed his own behind the wheel. Susan sat without moving before reaching across to instate her seat belt.
The bleeding neon flare left on her retinas by muzzle-flash spared her the sight of the remaining vehicle as they edged past its tail lights. Daylight, however vestigial, flushed so much from the encounter that she found she could look out as though blameless, impunity settling around them like loosed down, sinister in its weightlessness and alkaline inside her mouth.
"Is it better when you're angry, or when you're getting paid?" she asked, the words dragging as though melted by the effort of marshaling coherence and he offered no response.
Drawing the collar of her new green parka closed, Susan walked as quickly as the broken ground permitted past the arcing neon moth as though it were some mythic peril, a Scylla sans Charybdis amid brick as slick and black as cobra scales. The club door stood unmanned, as was usual before the customarily tardy entrée of its loathsome impressario. She scuffed the far wall of the alley with her sleeve and hurried on, chin almost to her chest, slowing to study the wall for the low-set trompe l’oeil panel painted into it. Looking down, she saw that she was standing in a puddle the colour of fly-blown flesh and grimaced silently; she shaped her right fist with the help of her left hand and thumped it against the sodden wood.
Leaning forward, she thought that she detected the faintest suggestion of movement from the passage inside beneath the dull bass throb from the Moth itself. A shudder through the monstrous timbers hurried her backward.
“What th’ cott’n pickin fuck?” the occupant demanded from the shelter of its hide.
“It's Susan.” she told it. "I need to talk to you." The vampyre’s gloating chuckle passed through the wood between them as it worked the latch; she felt the violent grinding of the iron in her chest, remembered details of the creature's brutality toward her churning in her gut.
Without its slathered cosmetics, Siobhan’s face possessed a strange, hypoxic blandness, an anonymity more startling than the corrupt theatricality she had braced for, and at first she attributed her surprise to this irregular state. But while Susan marked its surroundings in perfect detail, the vampyre presented as an insistent anomaly, like a sun-bleached watercolour, blanched and impoverished. It stood squinting back at her, dark little eyes narrowing with its tongue-stuffed smirk in an expression of dismal delight, then froze like a jammed film, before leaning forward from the doorway and peering hard in both directions.
“Heh heh heh... them critters’ll bounce ye off a stiff dick soon’s ye core temp takes a fuckin nose-dive.” it chuckled. “Ye kin fuckin thank meh, an git back on ye wey.”
“Either let me in or I’ll go and make a fucking scene in there.” she insisted, nodding toward the Moth, a tiny lateral flinch afflicting her for a second; it was enough to trip the vampyre’s seasoned guard and it snapped out an arm for the door, too late, Edward pinning it to the wall with his boot while he caught the creature's throat. Susan bent low, turning quickly to heave the huge bolt back into place after them.
Adrenaline carried her down into the darkness, the sound of Siobhan's wheezy carping extinguished by the grip on its neck. On the landing Edward set the shotgun from the boot of his sedan against the wall and used a finger to enjoin silence, listening to the contents of the chamber beyond the dark arched door before holding up three fingers for her benefit. She nodded, half-comprehending, the flagrant reality of his intention transpiring only as he walked her back against the wall and stooped to retrieve the firearm.
He shouldered open the door with no more urgency or duress than some familiar invitee, the two figures smoking methamphetamine before the vanity looking up at him with pipes poised between their fingers, the feeble candle flame as still in the darkness of their eyes as it was in the dead air of the chamber. The tallest broke first, snatching a pistol from the foot of the mirror, only to lose the offending hand then two thirds of its shrieking head to the shotgun, its skull arrayed like an egg struck by a stone against the chalky wall. In the bright flash of the closely-coupled blasts the second vampyre dived onto all fours, making a scrabbling dash for the door; Edward kicked it onto its side as it scurried past and swung the hinged wood, the creature's squeals becoming a high scream, its shoulders, spine and ribcage crunched like seashell between it and the frame. Siobhan's hands clawed at his throttling grip as Edward set down the shotgun, turning both his attention and a freshly-drawn forty-five toward the portiére curtain. He listened intently, shifted his aim to the right and discharged the weapon twice into the heavy fabric. It sagged outward, permitting the fugitive to topple forward, stolen blood expanding slowly across the flags beneath its featureless corpse.
Susan's muffled voice was resolved as he heaved the door back, the vampyre's oily remains dropping wetly to the stone though some stuck fast to the black wood where they were most condensed. She jumped over the glistening mound of offal into the dirty glow of the chamber, lifting the collar of her parka against the thick, webbed stench of corruption, like something shouted in her face, gelling on her tongue like cold fat. Edward released the vampyre's throat and threw it to the floor, where it lay, cursing shrilly under the boot he planted on its back. Rendered in the disparaging colours of Susan's new perception, neither the expectorating creature nor the remains laid out in the shadows of the curtain and the vanity table inspired much more than simple disgust, the latter's catastrophic, widely-broadcast misfortune almost completely abstracted by the effect.
“I can see them...” she exclaimed, holding out a hand for comparison. “Vampyres... they stick out like dog’s bollocks...” Stepping forward, she scraped the pistol from the jellied gore with the toe of her boot and scooted it across the floor toward him.
“Lydia said you might develop an eye.” Edward replied as he trussed Siobhan’s ankles with the green sash of its robe.
"Dralna paramedic.” Pausing, he tossed a pair of shells from his pocket onto the ground by the shotgun. “Reload.”
“I don’t know how.”
“Learn.” He hoisted Siobhan from the flags and looped the sash over the lowest tine of the sooty candelabra overhead, tying it off so that the vampyre hung like a vanquished game fish, its robe and slip of jewel-green satin flapping down over its head. It hacked and spat and fixed them both with an inverted scowl.
“Least ah kilt that piece as close t’ fuckin dead as she gonna git fer th’ fuckin ferseeable.” it croaked, batrachian grin aimed squarely at Susan. She struggled to break the shotgun with both hands before the carousing Arabs and placid tigers on the wall behind her, replying without looking up from her task.
“I survived, you idiot.”
Siobhan questioned its ears in a moment of silence, its almost stately spin beneath the candelabra directing it toward Edward.
“'Suff'rable fuckin hellion... ye nev'r did hev no respect fer th’ nat’ral fuckin order... resurrectin poontang... how many fuckin chickens died fer that shit?”
Edward reclaimed the shotgun, employing his customary monotone.
"You seem almost surprised to see us."
"Aint ev'reh day ye bring a sahde a fuckin gash t' tune a blameless fuckin by-stander!"
“This is not a social call. The sooner you comply, the sooner we can leave town with your life savings.”
“Go rob mah fuckin cash drawer lahk every oth’r fuckin crackhead!” the vampyre croaked.
“Just give us the fucking money..." Susan insisted. Siobhan seized on her intervention, spitting from the maw that had rent her flesh.
“Ye kin suck mah cold dead cock b'fore ah tek orders from a chickenhead bitch on her dirty fuckin rag... tek more then yew t' poke th' fuckin lahks a meh! Ah were tradin simple gash fer needful shit since fuckin Noah quit crappin off the port sahde... shoulda chugged ye harder while ah hed the fuckin chance!"
The salty insult returned Edward's gaze to Susan. She stooped to collect the door brace from the ground and strode past him with it in both hands, swinging the iron back over her shoulders. It struck the helpless vampyre on the full and then again, ringing dully with the weight she threw behind the blows, her arms burning, the corybantic joy of dealing agony bruited like streaks of sky-bound sulphur by the rhythm of her strokes, the dead flesh thuds and beaten grunts baring her own teeth. At first the creature screwed its black eyes shut and weathered the broadsides with a hoary veteran's resolve, though it grew far less supportable, driven by her white-faced rage, loosening her victim's grip on its own sorely-goaded animus. It thrashed and writhed within its binding flesh, snapping and foaming at her beneath the chandelier and she whipped it with the iron until her arms were almost lost to her, snarling back at it. Edward raised a hand to spare his face the blood flung from the brace while the vampyre relinquished defiance and hung slackly, expressing a low, hollow sound of such inarticulate character that she would have mistaken it for the scurl of groaning pipes if she had not stood before its source. With her face clenched like a fist, she battered the creature’s knees into a bagged and shapeless purple sludge and opened wet black gashes across its thighs, returning to its midriff for good measure before being halted by her failing grip upon the iron. Susan leant over the brace to catch her breath, glancing back at Edward's silence. If she had looked to him for judgement he offered none, handing her instead a half-spent taper from the vanity with an attitude of ascetic, pristine detachment.
“Say it with me. My name is Susan Ellen Christabel, and I am an apex predator.” he told her.
Her victim swayed in the heat that boiled about the flame, still swinging faintly from her final stroke, the candlelight a slick, licking gold upon the viridescent satin swagged against its battered form. Its hem curled out toward her almost in invitation. Edward's terrible smile had defrayed his impassivity, his eyes an eldritch shade of electrum and she felt their wildest qualities glowing in her own. Wax bled over the back of her fist, stiffening swiftly. For an instant she saw terror in the vampyre's gaze and felt herself its object; she wiped unwitting blood across her chin and the smell belted the milkshake from her stomach, throwing her forward and ejecting an arcing stream that slopped onto the stone beneath the creature. She shook the candle from her grasp as she spat, groping for the edge of the portiére curtain in the darkness and wiping her face. A thick black rill escaped her victim’s little pug nose and pooled in its eye for a moment before dripping from its forehead. Susan held onto the curtain while her stomach threatened further action, turning her face from the smell of the vampyre on the ground beneath it.
“Does it even have any money down here?”
In answer, her companion stepped over the body he had left beneath the drape, pushed it back and disappeared, returning with an ancient, seal-grey safe that he dragged over the flagstones, the steel screeching and sparking on the granite. At the sight of it, Siobhan writhed from the sash that bit into its ankles, exasperated profanities growing less comprehensible with the fruitless violence of its struggle; as if in sympathy, the perforated corpse under the curtain began to tic and shudder.
“You only let me go to piss Nyāti off.” Susan assured Edward, frowning as the inspiration struck her obliquely. “How fucking thick am I?”
“Dummer then a fuckin shitpost if ye think that dirty snakeface aint gonna do yew lahk he fucking durn us.” the vampyre spluttered brokenly.
“Shut your fucking cakehole." she told it.
“Combination.” Edward demanded, his stare an analogue to the grasp he maintained on the gun.
“I kint re...”
The first two syllables of Siobhan’s prevarication discharged the weapon at the left side of its head, leaving a tar-coloured hole the size of a fist where its ear had been and dressing the distant wall with mottled tissue, setting the vampyre off in a spin. Susan kept her hands to her own ears as it slowed, offered an alternating view of Siobhan’s unilateral disfigurement while it spluttered out the numbers Edward required. Sounds of sucking liquid movement, of wet constriction and release gurgled distantly and yet issued indisputably from within its inverted person.
“Hurry up... I think something’s happening...” she hissed. The sight of the vampyre's throat, distended to the thickness of its head when he looked up, inspired Edward to rise and drag the safe toward the door.
Almost as he did so its mouth fell open and loosed a lapsing, fetid freshet onto the flagstones at the impartial behest of gravity, emptying the great elastic sinus in the vampyre's torso of its horrible capacity. Susan leapt back and scrambled up onto the padded stool before the vanity, watching the black slick wash around the folded legs of the corpse beneath. The stench besieged her; as she retched against her hands the wormy stool frame cracked and pitched her forward, forcing her to jump down into the sludgy pond of blood. Turning his shoulder against the thick splash from her boots Edward heaved open the safe while she stumbled over the mephitic remains crushed in the doorway, skidding wildly on its squandered fluids. She caught a hold of Siobhan’s dress rack, a sequined sheath coming away in her hand while the rest toppled into the spill.
The rank alley seemed alpine-sweet to her when she burst out of the passage under the eaves, flapping her parka to throw off the stench that seemed to mouth them even as Edward propped the trompe l’oeil panel shut with a broken crate. The bag from the safe weighed half as much as she did, stuffed tightly with soiled, looted currency; he hoisted it onto his shoulder and hung the shotgun from his elbow, swinging it toward a pair of gossiping vampyres descending the steps of the club. They froze, dumping a shower of wallets and credit cards into the skirt that Susan held at his command before reversing through the door. She hurried after Edward, shaking the scaly, Persian-green sequins of Siobhan's gown from her arm.
A group of pale shapes standing in the darkness of the drawing room defied Shaw's attempt to identify them through glass, and he looked to the creature on the balcony overhead. William waved his phone toward the sky and redialed, so deeply invested in the process that he barely saw the figure on the grass below.
"Mind if I grab a coffee?" Shaw called, to which he did not reply, returning to his rooms with the phone to his ear.
The house itself seemed, suddenly like something mauled as Shaw stood in the entrance hall and looked around himself, leaning out to peer into the garage, frowning at the indiscretion of his footfalls upon boards stripped of their rugs and kilims. While some larger works remained upon the papered walls, many had been taken down, the panelling arrayed instead with a piled and tottering assortment of émigré effects, the tenuous order they had so recently attained dissolved as though by the click of fickle fingers. The drawing room was crowded with a low henge of packing crates, rolled rugs and thick, blanketed stacks of plaster frames. He pushed a hand down into the neck of his sweatshirt to lift a tiny camera by its lanyard, snapping a quick shot of the scene, the uninspired precepts of his training imposing priority upon his impulses, leading him to conclude that fresh intelligence would serve his interests as well as any other course of action.
The very silence prompted him to pause inside the passage outside Edward's library, though he had circled the property twice over in an intimate regard for his own safety. A large portion of the bibliographic collection still occupied the shelves, but it was the slim black laptop that relieved him with its presence on the ebonized desk in the beam of his torch. Pulling out the chair, he pushed a silver drive into its flank, resting his hands on the edge of the table as the software he had introduced began to dismantle its security. The burnt, ashy black scent of ancient ink and handmade paper was married to the smell of warmed-through plastic arising from the computer; he flashed the room with his camera and slid it back into his pocket, looking back down at the screen.
Wind flattened Susan’s hair, whipping it across her cheeks as she sat in Edward's car with its windows yawning open, the battering almost a solace to her, the smell of Siobhan’s revenant gore rising from her collar firing fluttering red images against her lids. Her gaze wandered to her companion's hands upon the steering wheel, their strange beauty gloved almost entirely in blood cured black by the night that roared and whistled in her ears. That he was hardly more than the glacial stranger of their first encounter impressed on her the distance at which he still lay, and that she might not live long enough to improve that shallow perception.
"It's when you're angry." she admitted, prompted to answer her own question, and fully conscious of its ironies. "It's better when you're angry." Edward looked back at her, wearing the darkness as he did the blood, and she felt the same black union on her own face, shadow and streetlight drawn in turn across their faces by their passage.
Commoriom Drive passed by without attracting her notice until they slowed between the gates. Even to Susan the house seemed complicit in Lilian's absence, appearing almost diffident, as though attempting to make good the loss with its material constancy; they coasted along the wandering slope of the drive to a standstill before the garage. Easing herself from her seat with the grubby drawstring sack, she refused his attempt to relieve her of the stinking canvas as the hallway door flew open at them, William whipping the cigarette from his mouth and exclaiming at her harrowed demeanour.
"What the fuck is this?" he demanded of his brother angrily. "She's supposed to be recovering, not going on satanic fucking rampages, you sadistic prick!"
"I am recovered." she sighed, sitting down on the bundled loot she had dumped at his feet and drawing hard on his cigarette.
"Call Aubjerjonois. Get his ETD." Edward instructed. William resisted active compliance until his brother demanded to know why.
“You’re always bitching me out about him playing both sides... the cartels are looking to jump him, he's got neckfuckers on him every other day... it’s not a good time." They argued the point in their own tongue until Susan raised her own weary exception.
“I'm not going to France.”
"You have to go somewhere, Christabel, right now, thanks to superfuck here... you don't have the papers to run with us."
“Leave with Auberjonois or go home on your own passport." Edward told her from the door.
She looked up at her remaining companion.
“You said you trusted Gideon." she sighed.
"Yes, okay...” William confessed. "I trust him. I just hate admitting it." She threw away the cigarette and hoisted herself to her feet.
"Then call him."
Susan trailed the stench of violence on her clothing along the corridor, frowning dimly at the randomized clutter through which she was forced to thread until she came upon the library, the room's dim, ensconcing isolation as sympathetic as she had hoped. She sat down in Edward's chair, stroking the heavy lid of her left eye, staring so long at the telephone in her hand that the number she recalled became a droning mantra. The sound of her parka sleeve moving against her side seemed more decisive than it was; she lowered her arm again, the appliance resting on her thigh, sniffing hard. Almost without deciding, she began to dial the international code, dismissing the price of the call from her considerations. It rang for a long time before it was answered by a voice half-shouting over music.
“Hello... is Fergus there? Fergus, or Jules?” she asked, listening to it echo at the other end of the line.
“Fergus... he left, what... three months ago? Got work in Oz... he’s gone love, sorry.” replied the male respondent.
“What about Jules? She’s still there, isn’t she?”
“Nah, she’s well out of it.”
“Jules is fucking the landlord!” someone called in the background; the remark provoked a round of jeering laughter from those within earshot.
“Sounds long distance...” the other assured them. The music was turned down. “Who’s this then?”
“It’s Susan... Can I just... I...” She could hear him turning back to his companions, the rough sound of his palm against the receiver as he passed her name over his shoulder. Someone else began arguing over possession of the telephone and the call was disconnected, the music and the voices replaced by a dead grey buzz. She set it down on the desk and slid her hands beneath her arms, her nose dripping onto her sleeves. She could not have named the cue that lifted her head and turned it; glancing past her elbow, Susan slid down from the chair, drawn to the slender plane of darkness behind the half-open door. It creaked softly on its hinges as she pulled the handle toward herself.
Shaw’s left hand cradled the heel of his right, his pistol staring a black eye at her forehead. He was surprised by her battered state, her dusk-blue hair both rucked and pasted down over her head, the grime smudged over her cheeks darkening the demi-lune shadows beneath her eyes. She brought her hand up to wipe her nose.
“It gets harder, the longer you wait.” she said quietly, the moments paying out like silk behind a spider and proving the wisdom of her postulate, until he could neither fire nor lower the weapon without material concession. “You wouldn’t make it to the front door anyway...” she added, still unblinking. "And you know what they'll do, once they get you." The rolling yaw engendered by her observation stole mass from the gun in his hands, rendering it in useless outline as though she had snatched it from his grasp. Susan let him suffer as long as she could enjoy that pallid satisfaction, then stepped back, her hand still on the door. "Just go. I've had enough for one night." she murmured. His instincts seized the bitter clemency before he could confuse it with argument; she nodded down at his waist and reached out, palm upturned. “Phone, gun... keys... everything.”
When he hesitated, she took a breath as though to call out, looking to the ceiling, and Shaw pressed the weapon into her hand, a quick inventory of his pockets yielding the other items she’d requested, and she stepped back, allowing him to conclude their transaction with the swift, inglorious discretion of a decamping felon. She sat back down in Edward's chair and counted him out through the front door, along the driveway and down the road, then pushed back from the desk.
Lukewarm coffee slopped from the flask Josephine dumped on the seat beside her as she lifted her infrared visor, striking the windscreen with its rims in her haste to resolve the pale shape of Shaw's private vehicle. Stepping out into the darkness of the clearing, she kicked her way through dead grass to the edge of the level ground; the four wheel drive parked at the foot of the hill jerked forward across the verge and turned a tight circle on the seal, planing sideways in the mud by the overgrown wall and spinning its wheels. She flipped open her phone and dialed Shaw's primary line, then the car itself while it sped away, lampless, along Commoriom Drive. The second call was accepted as the vehicle became a blur through the honed glass.
"What the hell are you doing, Shaw?" The open line crackled dimly but she heard movement in the cab before the call was terminated.
Josephine threw her visor into the car and slammed the door after herself, dialing another number and demanding immediate priority over the sounds of ignition.
William sat on the foot of his bed with her bag and the new pack that Edward had chosen for her, phone pressed to his ear by his shoulder. A few larger pieces of furniture had left dusty voids amid the chaotic remainder of his belongings, but precious little had been uplifted.
"Everything's still here! What were you doing all bloody day?" she cried.
“Auberjonois’ waiting for us. Does this look like everything?” he asked, inviting her to examine the bags.
"I don't know... what do I need?" She shrugged off her dirty parka as she ransacked the adjoining bathroom, returning to stuff handfuls of toiletries into the lid of the pack. Having discharged the impulse, she made herself still and pressed her eyes closed. "Just... be quiet, for a minute." she insisted, grasping the tail of her departing nerve. "I caught Shaw doing something... in the library." He let the phone fall. "He's a nark... I let him go. I'm sorry."
His reaction encompassed something more than the dismay she had expected, extending past her toward the footfalls that bore his brother down the hall toward them; she grasped her face in her hand while they regarded one another over her head.
"I said I'm sorry, alright?" she told Edward.
"How long's he been gone?" William asked.
"Maybe... ten minutes... I don't know... I took his phone..."
The brothers consulted one another in brief terms; Edward disappeared the way he had come and William hauled the pack onto his back while she stared at him, struck by the accord effected so swiftly by the exchange.
"We're not coming back here... if you need it and can carry it, get it now." he told her, tearing out the drawer from the bedside cabinet and dumping its contents onto the mattress.
"Not coming back here? This is everything you own!"
"It doesn't matter."
"Yes it does!" She stared around herself in desperation, kicking into the pile of clothing on the floor beside the bed and tearing free favourites that she wound into a ball and stuffed into her tote.
"Christabel... vite! Grouille-toi!" he urged, returning from the door to take her wrist and drag her down the stairs.
Out in the garden, he stood listening with his head bowed and his eyes closed.
"What is it?" she whispered, scanning the parterre.
The implications escaped her momentarily.
"Coming here?" He was forced to go after her as she marched back into the house. Defeated utterly by the sight of so many hapless possessions, Susan seized a battered silver candle stick from one of the crates in a despairing gesture. William dragged her out through the drawing room, forced to lift her from the ground when she planted her feet against the removal. "You can't just leave it! Where are we going?" she cried, tearing free of him and turning to stare up at the house. It loomed pale and stoic through her flooded gaze. William held out his hand to her.
"Somewhere else." he promised. "A'ma, avai'sahdi."
Imagined or not, the wind rolling in from the south conveyed proof enough to sweep her resistance aside and they moved as one, breaking into a run halfway across the parterre. The pool lay tranquil in its midst, their empty bottles standing around the sun lounge from which her towel hung in a thick drape. They rounded the corner of the orchard, ducking and pushing through the walls of the magnolia lane into the tangled stand beyond. It had overgrown all plans and paths in its wild dominion, weaving the dead and living into a dense, dew-dripping thatch that left the boles and lower branches bare. Nettles struck her calves as she fled through the yellowed smell of decay, leaping curling roots and fallen timber, breathless by the time they found the boundary wall. Where a rotten trunk had crashed through half its height William climbed up and offered his hand, but she had already tossed her burdens over the barrier and scrambled up a limb, leaping down into the wet, thigh-high grass and the bitter scent of the dock crushed underfoot in the neighbouring lot. The thudding she thought she had heard became an undeniable reality, still distant but closing as it sifted through the branches; she snatched up the candlestick and jogged backward past the oaks leaning out over the wall, panting as she searched the darkness yawning overhead.
"Your brother..." she whispered.
"He'll be fine." he told her, walking her back to the wall where the narrow stripe of clear ground at its foot left no sign of their direction. The unfamiliar yard was as enormous and neglected as their own, the distant house long-empty; at its corner they scaled the brick and came out in another cul de sac, its clipped verge indicating occupancy. Susan walked with her head down between the street lights toward the only visible vehicle, glancing to either side of them at the tall gates and foot-lit drives. The modest silver sedan uttered an electronic warning at their approach; William paused at its side, drew back his arm and put an elbow through the window.
It was the blown, wet-stone smell of dawn and the blanched and aqueous colours assumed by the morning already birthed beyond the curve of the horizon that woke Susan, to the prospect she had deferred. The interior of the unfamiliar vehicle redoubled the sense of displacement already gathered around her like a stranger's garment, its grey weight small welcome to day. They were parked alongside a broad field of asphalt and a half-dozen private aircraft, blank-eyed, standardized steeds. Dust and avgas vapour swept through the tall chain link beside them; she sat without moving, gazing through the window at William, who stood before the barrier, making a thorough survey of their surrounds. The set of his shoulders expressed both the diligence of the precaution and the disinclination with which he struggled and he brought it back to the car as he sat down. Words came slowly to her, volunteering themselves in a reluctant shuffle, like creatures summoned out of hiding.
"What's the time?"
"Six. How did he take the Frost news?" he asked, picking burrs from the edge of her skirt.
"Better than I expected, at first, but then he... it wasn't... good."
“Did you get the gooseberry eye?” He mimed it for her. She nodded. “After that, you’ve got about eight seconds before body parts start pinging off the ceiling.”
"I know that now."
Susan opened the glovebox before her then tried to cram it shut, too late to stem the flow of wet wipes, hair ties and brightly-cased singalong CDs into her lap. Together they stared down at the alien artifacts, William grimacing as they returned them to their lair.
"This is why I don't steal cars... now I feel like we've got soccer practice, and then we have to pick up Maddison and Emily from ballet." They shuddered together and he smiled, almost hesitantly, though her expression pushed his own back into distress and he drummed a foot on the floor of the car. "Christabel... ishah y'li sidati... I can’t let you go if you’re not dealing with this better than I am.”
"I am." she sighed, digging through the contents of her bag. He watched her, smiling briefly.
“How long will you take to get into Auberjonois once you're in the air?"
“I don't know." she replied absently, looping the strap of her bag over her head. "I'll have to wait for the seatbelt sign." Susan leant across to take his chin in her hand; he closed his eyes while she painted lipstick on his mouth with careful strokes, moving only as she leant forward and kissed the colour onto her own. "We have to go...” She conceded the syllables in exchange for another slow taste of him, her hand loath to relinquish his neck.
Dust flew from their footsteps as they strode across the gravel verge and he stooped to wrench the chain link free of the ground, holding it up for her. Susan rose on the other side, brushing off the sharp stones pressed into her palms, her face beaten colourless by the cold wind. Once more she felt the drag of the ineluctable current that had already borne her so far out into terra incognita that it eroded the very certainty of the ground beneath her feet, the distant, industrial drone clashing with her thoughts like static. Gideon’s aircraft was a sleek work of cold white art upon the tarmac; a fat fuel truck disengaged from it and rolled away slowly, an orange light flashing on the roof of its cab. The plane was larger than her worst expectations but did not approach those far more comforting dimensions of her limited experience, lit softly gold from within, its owner standing in the curve of a doorway set deeply into the fuselage.
“Don't go back to the house." she murmured to William, brushing the dust from her bag. They halted at the foot of the slightly battered set of steps.
"It'll be taped off by now."
“I might never see you again, either... these fucking death traps crash all the...” William lifted a hand to her mouth against the portentous nature of the observation; she took it in her own then between her teeth, and he bent to embrace her. She held him so tightly that his bones began to hurt her arms as Gideon descended the steps toward them, tugging down his cuffs and smoothing a hand over his head. Winding a length of William's hair around her fingers, she yanked it free, closing it in her fist when he set her down and rubbed his head. “If I don’t see you again, I’ll find a witch and curse you. How do you say goodbye?"
"We don't, really. Is Pet with you?" he asked their host, keeping hold of her hand.
"She is inside, asleep already. That colour, it is wonderful on you." Gideon smiled at the faint, wandering shade of coral on his lips. "An you look very lovely tonight, Sussan.” he added, casting an eye over her grimy, blood-spattered person. William crooked a finger at him, to which he smiled again, inquisitive.
“If she tells me that you or anyone else so much as looked at her the wrong way, I’ll neuter your whole sleazy fucking tribe with the same teaspoon. Je suis fucking sincére. T'as intérêt à lui coller aux basques sinon ça va barder pour toi."
“Have no fear. She is in good hands, bijoux... the best hands. You may find she does not want to leave... then what will you do?”
“I just told you, so write it down.”
"Bonsoir, serpent-visage.” Gideon called, fluttering a hand at the warning finger William kept pointed at him as they ascended the steps.
“Bon débarras, grenouille stupide.” the latter replied.
Gideon swept Susan’s luggage from her grasp, shepherding her into the plane before she could further delay their departure. Its interior was a secluded study in dense, bewildering, transplanted luxury, its perfumed air as warm as blood against her face and neck, the curving cabin panels lined with a caramel skin of dappled maple and reclining chairs in black, glove-soft Italian leather. Luc and Étienne sat behind automotive magazines and comics in the rear; they smiled up at her from beneath their headphones. Gazing along the narrow aisle, Susan chose a seat behind the door, the soft squab deflating slowly beneath her as she sank down.
On the tarmac William lifted his T-shirt from his stomach to wipe his streaming eyes, still weeping as he let it fall and walked slowly backward, hands clasped on his head. She pressed her lips to the double pane as Gideon sat down beside her, looking past her shoulder.
“Look at him... crying, comme un grand enfant." he chuckled. “What is this?” She glanced down at the fist imprisoning the hair from William’s head, unfurling her fingers; to her dismay, her palm held only translucent dust, like finely-powdered glass. He tisked. “Per'aps you were holding it too tightly.”
The engines roared on either side of them, pressing her back into the seat, their velocity climbing exponentially and without preamble until the floor tilted away from the tarmac. The jet followed its nose into the air, turning a half-circle over the brightly glowing city and its dark blue arc of hills.
E N D O F P A R T O N E
* Read the next chapter *