P A R T T W O
I N T E R A L I A
Though she had devoted little time to speculation on the long ride south, Susan found the Auberjonois demesne far larger and less quaint than she had imagined. The antiquated oaks that overloomed its single road had thriven and extended into the prodigious symmetry permitted by the valley's secluded footprint, the giants amongst them a credit to the unwavering esteem of their protector. Greening, overgrown Roman stone declared an entrance manned by two armed veterans of Gideon’s circle, as of the forest as lions were the plain, saluting the elderly limousine from their stations on the weathered masonry. The vehicle crawled slowly over the uneven ground on thick springs, its mirror polish assuming the enclosing wood; she wound down the window, blinking at the sunlight fluttered through the butter yellow leaves, the colour heaped over the black roots that spanned the mould like veins. Their deep, insistent conjugation with the willing earth seemed like something unimagined by the stately boles and canopies, their sustenance traded mutely in the elements beneath, their fallen foliage granting a careless, partial modesty. The smallest clockwork creatures wore their fur amid the mottled drifts, the rapacity of their preparations for the coming season expressed in flicking tails and lightning beats across the road. Susan smelled, and thought she heard, a river lying in the depths alluded by the descent to the east, but could make little of it between the trees, those dissociated from the trail standing as though with their faces turned, concerned more with one another than any passing intrusion.
They rode on until the oaks relented suddenly, exposing a broad shoulder clothed in open meadow, its exhausted colours beaten down, vigor spent in expectation of repose. A scolding flock of jays scattered into the air before their vehicle, flashing turquoise, planing away over a low line of yews that divided the meadow from a parterre garden, its dramatic, finely-demarcated textures like figured embroidery in lavender and sage, its bib of felt-green lawn pressing right up to the house itself.
The structure's two modest stories had been raised from the granite of the surrounding gorges and topped with a sloping hat of stern blue slate, reaching into eaves that were the equal of the region’s winters; arches of the same native stone framed narrow windows set with blinkered wooden shutters. Her face had lost its dour incomprehension as she glanced at her companion, and Gideon looked up from the newspaper in his lap in acknowledgment of her appreciation.
A short stone bridge spanned a ditch trickling with a stream that pushed through nodding grass, the long car easing on through gates pinned against the stout walls of an arch into a yard enlivened with topiary conifers; two baroque bronze dolphins spouted a pattering stream over their own flanks in a shallow black plane of water. Gazing upward, she saw the walls wore carven masks that had lost their rudest features to the rain and snow, so that their malevolence seemed subtle and considered. Over the kitchen door a weathered viper grasping its tail had been worked into the frame. Gideon smiled at her notice of it.
“I love the snake.” he admitted. “It is so blameless.”
The servants' kitchen was full of thick scrubbed pine and bright, mismatched Ardéche chairs, the impression elevated from agrestic simplicity by artful arrangement, continuing the graceful, almost unearthly standard of luxe that had enfolded her since their association, as though at the insistence of some lavish national divinity. It had lightened her mood en route, but the prospect of inhabiting a stranger’s house returned the frown to Susan’s face. Intramural formality began in the adjoining hall, almost a room in its own right, molding picked out in three shades of creme and duck-egg blue; away from the deep-set windows the rooms lost all touch with the world outside and became an insulated refuge. A large suite had been readied for her deep within the southern wing, its plastered walls framed with gilded gesso, deeply-buttoned fauteuil standing in the corners dressed in bloomy tearose silk, the cloth repeated in the plump quilts asphixiating a bed headed with riotous rococo boulle in the forms of swans and banners. An enormous blaze lapped willow slabs and pine cones in the open grate, betraying the presence of servitors that she had not yet espied.
“I cannot tell you how long I take to choose the colour... my decorator tear out his hair.” he told her, setting her pack down on the ottoman.
“It’s... lovely.” she assured him, placing the only bag she had been permitted to carry beside the others. “But I would have been happy with the couch.”
Incomprehension crossed his features, and he shook his head, as though politely disregarding some unwitting insult.
“Sussan, first, I must say something to you, an I don’t want for you to be alarmed.” He swept her toward an adjoining bathroom with a gesture. “I don’t know what Sachiin has told you, but, this place it is a hahdri as well as my home. You know this word?” He nodded with her. “Good. It's okay right now... you could sleep on the parterre, pas de probléme. But the moon, she make the rules... respecter les régles, eh? Your friend has his teaspoon... I don’t like him to kick my ass from here to Lyons because someone stand downwind of you.” Gideon nodded toward the garden. “Don’t go outside at night, not ever. Your room is on fire, okay... but if you want to walk, I will come with you. Never alone. An I cannot let you leave this place until Sachiin send for you. You are in my hand now... this is an old rule, an we keep to it.” She nodded again, more slowly. “Sometime, I must go for business, an then Luc will look after you... en cas d’urgence, you must leave everything an go with him, Étienne, or myself, whoever come first.” He shrugged, smiling. “That’s all. Now Sussan, you must be frank with me... what do you think of this? It is not, how you say, ah.... mauvais goût?" A long curtain of pink and gold toile hung over an enormous oval tub of rosé marble veined with vanilla inclusions, its steaming water topped with jasmine-scented froth.
"Tacky?" she suggested, smiling as she scratched at the back of her head. “I'd call it... happy.”
He lapsed into a chuckle and nudged her with his elbow, pronouncing her name so that it sat proud, like a sunlit isle amid his observations.
“Sussan... elle est tout á fait ridicule."
“William would say it looks like a dead duck’s guts.”
"Such exquisite vulgarity. Maybe the soap should be white, who can tell?”
“Well, a few weeks ago I had to burn furniture in the back yard to get hot water, so I’m just happy when the taps work.” she confessed. He shuddered in sympathy.
“Maison Bucket, eh? Quelle horreur. People ask me, why don’t you stay with them, Auberjonois, but ah... if you must ask, you haven't had the pleasure. So, now, you must excuse me... my cook he has the pox, an I wear the apron tonight.” he explained. “I like to dress for dinner. Perhaps you have something to wear?”
He watched her transfer the contents of her pack onto the quilt, keeping it in tidy piles as she sought out her cocktail dress.
“Everything I own has bloodstains.” she confessed.
“Leave them outside for Étienne... he is like Jesus casting out the spirit into the swine.” her host advised, touching her arm with another of his ingratiating smiles, before leaving her alone. She left the bed to stand before the fire, lifting her dress to warm her bare legs.
A padded squab cushioned her place at a round, dark-timbered supper table, heavily laden with parochial silver and warmed Dresden china. She was grateful that Gideon had eschewed the grander rooms in favour of an intimate parlor, set back from the duck-egg hall and densely furnished with everything pertaining to a convivial repast. A stout bombé sideboard groaned behind her under the weight of a massive silver epergne wrought as thickly twisting vines, its bowls carved from Russian nephrite into leaves loaded with persimmons and fat liqueur cherries cloaked in chocolate. The walls, papered in figured cobalt, were festooned with journeyman portraits; of local nobility, the women clutching roses and smiling as though recalling secrets, the men wearing a heavy ancestral compliment of her host’s assertive features, and of livestock, including pensive, elongate sheep and proud bovine sires with their sinister black heads and tiny hooves. Even a cat had earned posterity, a brindle beast with belled collar and championship whiskers splaying from its nose. The glassed doors offered a view of the unlit parterre, but it was the prospect of the meal to which the lavish trimmings were but an allusion that absorbed her, proving almost more than her empty stomach could endure. The kirsch cherries suggested a speedy visit to the sideboard, cancelled by the smell, if not the sound, of her host’s approach along the hall. She sat down quickly, smiling as he entered.
Gideon bore an ashet in both hands and set it down in the midst of the table, lifting the lid to reveal a large, fuming joint of wild game, glistening in a treacle-brown glaze and accompanied by mounds of chestnuts, trembling apricot chanterelles, ruby onions wearing garlands of rosemary like conqueror's heads, and roasted potatoes, en echelon, anointed with thick curls of melting butter. Susan stared, mouth half-open, as he began to carve.
"Thank god you’re a carnivore.” she exclaimed. "I could just plonk my face in this and suck it off the plate." His smile altered slightly at the artlessness of her remark.
"Moi aussi. Strange to have company, I know... I don't allow the jeunes in here, and when Sachiin was with me I dine alone so many times I give up my cook an put my tables in the attic.” he sighed, serving them both and taking his seat. He had shaved carefully, the razor leaving his proud face soft, combed his hair into grudging obedience and wore a fresh white shirt beneath his jacket, his thickly-timbered shoulders comfortably accommodated by the bespoke garment.
“It's so depressing eating pot noodles like a bloody leper while they sit up in the bedroom and moan about the smell.” she agreed. "Lilian lived on drugs and cornflakes, so she wasn’t much better." Another silence threatened the infant momentum of their exchange, and she once more regretted the low cut of her black dress. Her eyes followed the embroidered meander that ran beneath her plate toward his hand; it rose from the stem of his glass to pour a silky black syrah. The quantity of heavy talismanic gold in his ears and on his fingers absorbed the molten colours of the fire buried in the small grate at their feet.
“La Lune.” he said, by way of a toast, sinking a draught. “Lilian... Kala'amātya's woman?” She nodded again, mouth full of the many delights heaping her plate. “A brave soul. He leave her in America?”
“I think she left herself there. This is deer, isn’t it?” she inquired of the roast mounded on her fork.
“Oui... some people don’t like to eat them, but they are prettier than cow. So... you don’t want to talk about Kala'amātya an this girl... c'est bon. Some things are best left to themselves.” Gideon patted the pocket of his jacket, its sleek, silk-wefted cloth closing into soft folds in the crook of his elbow. It was easy to accept his putative antiquity; his skin gave him away, stained a stubborn, golden, Assam brown by numberless campaigns beneath the staring eye of summer. The same rough passage had beaten the small, susceptible elements from his features, like the weathered masks that guarded the eaves; no glowing vacancies brightened his eyes, the crowded, occult colours crammed and overlaid, permitting no intrusion. He set something small on the linen halfway across the table, letting its gold chain slip through his fingers. “Stupid of me to forget.” he conceded. Her Mughal pendant lay like the final flourish of a magic trick. “Wear it... life is short. All I ask, is that from time to time, you put your hand to it, like this, an stare out of the window. He won’t ask, but it will make him crazy.” She grasped it tightly, transfixed by disbelief and gratitude, which he waved back at her, looking once more to the hearth. “Certain people offer me doux fois what I pay for this, to give you over to them.” The chain stalled as she turned it round her neck. “An I thought about it for a time, you know... old people, we are not so romantic. But, difficult enough these days, to look into the mirror. So don’t offer me your firstborn.”
His admission was confessional without undue apology; Susan looked down at the jade plaque in the palm of her hand.
“William trusts you. I wasn't sure.”
“You must, because I give my word, an my word is good no matter what you hear. Sachiin listen to some stories... I listen to story... des conneries... by now, we should all know better. Diviser pour mieux régner." he muttered while she puzzled over the shallow inscription carved into the pendant's reverse.
"Do you know what this means?"
"Agar ferdows dar jahan ast hamin ast o hamin ast o hamin ast... if there is a paradise on earth, it is here, it is here... Farsi, from a palace, dans le nord de l'Inde." her host replied, recalling the haunting declaration and observing its effect on her. "Even the things we do not say, they have a life in silence."
Susan returned it to her breast, stilled for a moment by his remarks, then revisited her meal with exclusive intent, her teeth cracking through potatoes crisped in duck fat into their warm, powdery hearts, sopping up the juniper-scented gravy with thick, peppered hanks of venison. The wine slid easily from her glass, elder-purple, sharply sweet like tamarind and blackberries, leaving its burning ghost behind. Gideon ate restlessly, as though humouring both haste and hunger, then set down his knife and fork and leant out from his chair to lay another piece of willow on the fire.
"You have seen this?” He nodded past her, referring to a portrait beside the door in a plain oak frame. It was a brief thing, a hasty, almost harried committal, eschewing surrounding detail in favour of the central figure standing in a tunic of sullen madder red, worn golden handwork banding its long sleeves. He regarded the artist from a belligerent remove, the white hand upon the Levantine saddle beside him equidistant from the dagger at his belt, dark head bare but for the length of his braid.
“Looks like a terrorist.” she murmured, smiling at the whispering lure in William’s green stare in the midst of his figural resistance. Gideon nodded at her conclusion.
“So much worse than mujahadeen, because they don’t believe in anything.”
“Edward doesn’t believe in anything. William believes in forgetting his wallet when you go out to dinner and lying on his face until two in the afternoon. And jam... he believes in eating all your jam.” Her assurance prompted him to snort in the midst of a chuckle.
“Also in eating all your tulipe noire and drinking your Margaux. But then he look at you like Venus smiling from the shell, an your underwear, it go foof.” he smirked. “When he come to this place, he was already idle an arrogant, like all wild things... too long in the mountains an then too long in the desert. He bring his horses, his dogs, his Persian whores, with the plague marks on their arms, an their black teeth... they shit in the fountain when I tell them don't burn my lavender... he lay his tents out there on the grass, because he did not like a roof that weigh more than he did, an would not sit for my painter. He swore that he would cut the hands from any that tried to make his likeness. Both the Arab an his own tribe, they frown at such frivolity, calling it an insult to their faith. But ha ha... tout n'est que vanité. I flatter him, bring him slowly... slowly... into the house, an soon, he is complaining about my wine an linen, an sitting for this picture like any fille de joie.” The memory of his artful conquest still amused him, even if its subject’s expression did not perfectly support his account, and he turned his smile back toward Susan. “He did not love me... lying is the only thing they don't do well. But in my old age I ask, what is love? When it is amicable an commonplace, it is only huile de cul, something to smooth the little things, an when it is dément, et formidable, you are its bitch an not much more... a slave. I think, when you cannot look without touching, it is a fine thing, an so it was... I throw down my colours an made his breakfast an pour his brandy an was pleased to do it.”
She shook her head, philosophical.
“I just can’t. I probably should be nicer to him, but he’s such a lazy, annoying shit.”
“When you an I first met, I look at you an wonder, what does she have?” The envious sentiment was affianced by a long, darkened glance across the table in her direction. “Then Petrouchka tell me that you say no to him an curse all of his bad habit. Of course... for this he loves you, more than all of us who would indulge him. Kala'amātya himself say to me of him, one time... nai naga nya ala'il si'at'nae... there are no snakes in his simplicity... an I agree, there is no art in him, no sophistique... he is simple. I could not see this, an you do." She could not help but affirm the generous sentiment. "That is not to say I have not thrown a chair at his head from time to time... trés bien, eh? But these days I am a lecher, not a romantic. If I am to sin, it must come to me with a bottle of something, an make its own breakfast.”
His teeth were thick and well made inside his smile, their double canines laid neatly against each other. She smirked back at him, the expression developing a blush when he extended the reference toward her.
“I know he like to dream that aprés Sachiin, I only raise the flag for the exotique, but ah... I can still give you a good night’s sleep, mon chou, if you don’t mind dark meat after so much... white bread.” That he intended every word of the invitation was underscored by his implacable machismo, its presence leaning on the table between them in support of it; Susan looked to him again, steeling herself against it and the increasingly pictorial speculation it inspired. Shadow lay in the hollows of his broad and staunchly-formed hands, the same deep colours shaded in the vales of his face, the darkness beneath his eyes conferring an expression of habitual skepticism that continued in his brow. “Say no to me, Sussan. I won’t kick down your door...” Amusement widened his smile as he returned to his meal. “Pas ce soir.”
"Do I have to decide right now?" she asked, working her fork under a potato. He shrugged.
"I am patient."
"It's not that I'm not tempted..."
"But of course." he chuckled. Susan speared an elusive mushroom and studied it closely.
"I've never actually thought of myself as a slapper, but lately... it's almost as if there's a bad influence coming from somewhere..."
"L'accident était inévitable." he assured her. "An the woods, you know, they work on you this way. Everything baiser something else."
"Did you ever... meet Rana?" she asked.
Gideon coughed into his hand and set down his cutlery, pushing his plate away and reaching for her own when she declared it superfluous.
“Ah, oui... an I hear of her retour. Looks like she’s no stranger to you.” He nodded down at the scars that crept over her wrist from her arm.
“She tried to pull me through a third floor window.”
“When he was here, she would come into the garden at night, sneaking in to cut the womens' throats an kill the dogs, an then to beat him... which he would endure like a Roma bear, believing there was a chain, you know, in his nose. I grew tired of this, an kick her back to the Seine. I think now that he came to me because I would do this for him, when his brother would not.” They glanced in unison at each other. “ Kala'amātya, eh? What do you think?”
“I try not to.”
He shrugged his brow, and then his shoulders.
"I have to say, myself, I prefer sal to sucré. But you don’t come to this way of thinking overnight.”
“I’ll probably be a very old woman before I stop thinking of him as caustic soda.”
“I won’t argue. His tribe, they kill his heart, an we have had bad times with him ourselves... he is violent, an you cannot predict him... when you have no love for yourself, how can you trust?" He gazed about himself, wrestling with the depth of his own sentiment. "There is a lesson in him, I think. The bad things, they are always with us, but beauty she is as strong as any evil. Some people give her up, and I myself have come too close to this." He directed his stare at her unexpectedly. "Don't be that way, ça va? You will be dead while you are living." Satisfied, Gideon sat back and drained his glass. "You like pie? You have the derriére of a good country girl so I think yes.”
A brief lacuna settled while he returned to the kitchen to fetch dessert, bringing back a sweetly-perfumed tart in one hand and a plate of slouching cheeses and suede-like, sun dried apricots in the other, a bottle of fruit liqueur beneath his arm.
“Flambé... gauche, I know, but I don’t care.” he confided, dousing the dish and striking a match over the pie to produce a high blue flame that wafted backward with him when he sat down. Its simple, effusive beauty spread her toes inside her rabbit slippers; she slumped in her chair and sighed, leaning an elbow on the table.
“You’ll have to give me a minute.” she warned, patting her stomach. “I’m bogged. Can I ask... you are french French, aren’t you? Are your family from here?”
"Not ah, Gévaudan... I buy this place, a long time ago. My family are Provençal. Basque, before that, my mother’s people. An you? Anglo-saxonne?"
"Boring, I know."
"Don't be modest, Sussan. I see some armada in you. Perhaps we are cousins."
She laughed, beating down the apricot that jammed in her throat.
"Well that takes care of one thing for me."
Gideon put a hand to his chest in dismay, then resignation, at her scruple.
"It was good enough for our grandfathers. Eh bien..." he conceded.
“William said you met overseas, that you... what was it? Joined up to something together?"
“I served the Catalan cartel at first. It was quiet when I was young, my god, like you would not believe. My family they were quiet, the towns, quiet... the countryside... you could hear a Corsican whore fart from an épicerie in Toulouse.”
“I tried to get him to explain how you go from that to killing random people in the Middle East, but I didn't have much luck.”
“It's hard for people now to know those times. The south, she was full of religion an nordistes... we were young an bored, an oui..." he shrugged. "Quite stupid. Sans méfiance. One time, a big goat, he come into my uncle’s house an ate the pages from his bible... we don't follow this book, it was only for appearance... for weeks, this was the only talk for a day's walk all around. The only talk." Susan pulled a grim face at the prospect and he nodded to it. "Then you know, Urban the pope he make his speech an the whole world lose its head an took the cross. Outrémer... she sound like discotheque. I go with the Catalans to Ascalon, a trebuchet show to me the taste of sand, and voilá... from that moment, I was a slave to le guerre.” He laughed again at his venality and cut her a wide wedge of pie, shuffling it from the silver slice. “What can you do? Alujha were born for it.”
“How can you be born for something like that?” Susan scoffed. "That's the sort of thing William says when he can't think of an excuse for whatever Edward's doing."
Gideon set down the slice and lifted the little glass-bellied salt and the silver pepper shaker, both standing on tiny lion’s paws, from their retirement at the edge of the table and poured a little of their contents into adjacent piles upon the cloth.
"To the east of here, by the Pont-d'Arc, there is a cave... na Avájir... the Grave, we say. In the oldest times, le invocateur, the shamans, witches... they share their dreams with the wolf in these places, an they trade the flesh with him.” He pushed the salt into the pepper with the end of his finger until they were inextricably combined. “We are brother an sister with all things. In na Avájir, this union was painted on the walls, an from this comes my tribe, born as they were made. The girl, with the stars in her head, an the boy, with the moon in his heart.” Gideon passed his hand over the mingled grains. "These caves, they are so beautiful, but they are silent now and I cannot look at them. All they hold has passed away. In them you can see that most important thing forsaken... that moment, when the first man turn from other beasts, to tell his children they did not have to share. From this moment come the fall... come croisade, the abattoir, the gas chamber... na Avájir is the grave of us all."
The unctuous mouthfulls of sugar-glazed plum lost their sweetness in her mouth and she swallowed slowly, prompting him to smile briefly to himself.
"Déprimante, eh? Never mind. Sachiin et Kala'amātya, they too are born as they were made. You and I, we have a difference, but we are Rome’s children, an we sit by the fire. They stand before the window an dream of the massif in winter.”
“He's told me some of it already, where they came from.” she admitted. "More than I thought he would."
His sigh betrayed the volume of his ruminations on the subject.
“One time, we wait in the Krak for some Syrians to pound us into dust, an some dancing girls from the north... Azeri, perhaps, I don’t remember, but they say to us... in exchange for everything we own, some jinn would come from beyond Samarkand and murder all our enemy." He rose, and brought the epergne from the sideboard, turning a chocolate-laden leaf toward her. "Their grandames told of an old cabal, witches from the East who fashioned these jinn to serve them, but these creatures, they were not so comme il faut... lustful, they said, an disobedient, an they run away. Now, who does this sound like?” The almost pornographic beauty of the cherries monopolized her gaze. “If you don’t eat one, I will have to call a priest.” Gideon warned her. He reached across and took one for himself, leaving the shadow of his chair and leaning into the glow effused by the pale table linen. It lit the two blank circles of silver white in the back of his eyes, canceling the perspicacity of his conscious gaze. “I take pride in these tales, now I am the only one who know, more or less. It is said also that in their mountains they wear their truest form, an go about like this... monstrueux. When they are moved by some desire, when they seek rendez-vous galant with other creatures, they descend, an on their way, pass through a river... this water paints a face on them, comme par magie... one pleasing to us, an when they return, the river washes it away. It is said too, as they grow older they look, day by day, more like the altérité, an less of you an I. Something to keep you awake at night, eh?"
Susan glanced up from her plate.
"It takes a bit more than that these days."
"I feel I should apologize, for this...” he confessed, touching his hand to his neck to indicate the shallow concave on her own where Siobhan's assault still glowed pearl white and unreconciled. “I don’t know why. Vampyres... they disgust me, even Belyaev, sometimes. Not one in a hundred escape as you have done." he assured her. "Someone look out for you."
“It was Edward. I’d probably be heaving up chicken blood somewhere if he’d decided not to bother.” He laughed and crossed himself. “The downside is... now I’ve got vampyre goggles and I can see the mingers everywhere.” He seemed perplexed by her terminology. “It’s like having a lot of really horribly ugly naked people standing round you on the beach.” she explained.
"Quelle chance. You know now, never to trust them, nor anyone who serve them. If they have not sold your blood to a friend while it is still in your vein, it is because this would be sharing you. Easy to become confused by the cape and fangs and all the movies, but that is theatre. They are not."
“What about Petrouchka?”
“I love her, but I don’t trust her. Alujha... trust them, love them, let them buy dinner, but don’t wear your best négligée an ah... don’t run, you know? Never run. Witches... ingénieux, amusing, as long as you don’t talk politic or religion. Vampyre... don't drink their wine. That’s everything you need to know. Now you have a nice big scar and it is, how you say... c'est hardcore, and people will take you seriously... no bad thing. I would still have you, after all.” Gideon's smile wandered to the glassed doors behind her, and he excused himself, walking around to pull the curtain closed, the thick sound of the drape upon the carpet overlaying that from the lawn outside that had prompted him to tactfully occlude the view of the garden. “You know something? Never mind what I have just told you... at the heart of everything, there are only two people... the one who love order, and the one who love freedom. For a happy life, you must know which you love best, and go always in this direction. C’est facile. Prends ton courage á deux mains. Take courage in both hands."
Susan shook her head at the fresh bottle he suggested.
“If I don’t sleep, I think my face will fall off.” she admitted.
“I will walk with you, make sure there is no Luc under your bed. He is a devil.”
In her suite, the fire had been replenished and the quilts turned down, her dresses ushered into a vast armoire and the candlestick she had snatched from Commoriom Drive set on the bedside cabinet, considerations prompting her to frown as he assured himself of their commission.
“You don’t have to make them hide. I like Étienne.” she insisted, perplexed by the reticence of his retainers. Gideon appeared unmoved.
“The discipline is good for them.”
“I was a bit worried about coming here.” she added.
"Don't worry. The future is for seers. We don't share their curse." He came forward and, with a hand on each of her bare arms, pressed a measured kiss to both her cheeks, his grasp drifting to her elbows. His scent, of hot-blooded skin, syrah and sage-green vetiver, stayed with her when he stepped away; Gideon made a small bow in the doorway. "I won’t be here tomorrow, so if you would like something in town, I can bring for you...”
She shook her head.
Against the drunkenness that flushed her face, she pushed open the window and leant out, into the cold blown in from the parterre. It shouldered its way past the brocade and wandered through the shallow little chandelier over her bed, leaving a cool, wet clatter in its troubled glass and pushing the door against its frame.
Glancing up from the time on his wrist, Shaw watched O’Connor’s drab reverse pass into the drawing room from the entrance hall, moving through the house like a bird of ill omen amid the disaster it had foretold. Around them, at distant points both outside and within the abandoned building, he could hear the evidential team walking back toward the vehicles parked along Commoriom Drive; with their saturnine guards they wore the casual guise of a grounds maintenance crew, their thick black plastic bags bulging with collected materials. One pair paused to pitch a shovel under a damp tiger print dress lying in the long grass amid a strange, shallow mound of ashy refuse, lifting both garment and a sample of the surrounding matter into one of the bags and tying it off.
“With all due respect, no one could have anticipated this... it was chaotic the whole time I was here. Leaving was as random as every other damn thing they did.” Shaw assured his bespectacled critic. The drawing room retained a definite suggestion of the unsettling perfume that had once pervaded the entire dwelling; he had thought it dissipated until confronted by its dappled, darkly myrrh-like presence as he stood amongst the gutted packing crates of unmarked pine. “What else could I have done?” The query drew a long, glassed-over glance from his superior.
“Your regard for your own safety is... it's touching, really. It's just a shame it was a subordinate objective.”
In contrast to the dissonant exotica abandoned by her companion, Susan Christabel’s forsaken belongings were so strongly suggestive of her person that Josephine had initially battled her flickering imago in William’s suite. Her summer dresses hung in the darkness of the little anteroom and in a thick scatter across the naked mattress, her makeup and costume jewellery lying amongst them in a shiny, intimate constellation. She stepped back against the french doors, photographed the arrangement and stooped to dump the contents of the bedside rubbish bin onto the floorboards. The latex film gloving her hands caught on the wrinkled paper of the receipts she flattened out upon the lamp table, smudging the printout, and she smoothed the next one more carefully.
The bathroom, gleaming like the chamber of a glacier in the slanting afternoon, offered nothing more than towels and bathrobes that had dried upon the tiles, a half-smoked cigarette and a pair of curious silver pliers lying open in the basin beside a pair of scissors. On the marble beside them she discerned the faint glitter of some dry, almost micaceous substance, a hueless powder, as fine as talc and as cold as glass. To her knowing eye the passage of some shrewd, unfailing hand had swiftly stripped the rooms of their most informative indiscretions, clipping the chain of circumstance into arbitrary fragments like the scrambled elements of a shipwreck disgorged by the sea. A huge black Afghan coat lay on the floor beside the french doors; she hoisted its lax weight onto the mattress and removed the debris from its pockets. The smell of blood shook loose from its heavy black staple along with that of cigarette and dope smoke, dry ice, exigent sex and exhausted perfume, of places she had never been except as an intruder. Money fell from the lining and pockets like something imperfectly understood, French francs and American dollars. Josephine stowed it with her other souvenirs in an evidence bag, along with a heavy brass lighter in the shape of a carp, its surface figured with a multitude of fingerprints.
In contrast, if not in direct opposition, the suite at the far end of the hall might have belonged to anyone by the time its last habitué had quit, leaving a low black bed and a silver clothes stand to testify to the bare fact of occupation. Knowing she would find nothing, she walked between them to the window and stood in the sparse shade cast by a neighbouring branch, attracted by the sounds of conversation in the porch below. Foreshortened by her vantage, Shaw turned back toward it in the midst of his departure, his gaze upon the grass as he received an addendum to O’Connor’s uncharitable review, its flattened vowels working with his authority to cripple any rebuttal it might have deserved. He glanced up and she stepped back from the window.
O’Connor called her from the house before she could document the room. In the shade of the porch he wore his thinly-contained rage like disfiguring hose pressed to the face of a thief. She took out her camera and began to review her pictures.
“Lilian Frost didn’t run with them, but the British girl did. She’s new to this so they’ll pick a soft landing... white, Indoeuropean, nothing too challenging. She went out and bought what she needed, left all the pretty on the hanger, so they’re going off the grid. We should be hitting the informants hard for anything feeding into that pattern... money trades, safe passage deals, clueless white girl...”
“Shaw has just implied that you broke protocol and invited yourself along, the night the auxiliary sub dissected the Rutherford female.” he told her, watching her eyes find the back of Shaw’s head as the latter walked between the distant gates. "Is there something else you think he should have disclosed? I did get that feeling, looking over last night's logs." She made no reply to the conjecture. “It’s really not the overpersonalized approach you’ve developed that disturbs me, per se, though I can see how others might... recoil from that kind of investment... it’s that you’re like a cul de sac, Ms Jones. A dark little pit where information goes to die, and I can’t have you swallowing all the light during regime change.”
She spoke through a stock smile intended for the gazes studying their exchange from the vehicles parked on the road.
“I'm not here to pick up a cheque. Let me scrub in, give me access to the capture... in thirty days I’ll kick everything you need back up to you.”
His laugh scratched at her face, lasting well into his reply.
“You’re asking for participation... I can give you that. You and Shaw can both hit the bag run to wherever these subs show up first.”
“Under who?” she demanded, following him out onto the drive.
“At this point, it wouldn’t be fair to keep Trent from the kind of active authority he craves, so as far as I’m concerned, you can all head out together.”
From the narrow, half-shuttered kitchen window, no insolent Persian whores obliged Susan’s effort to picture them beside the fountain, though she stood squinting over the sink with a forgotten cigarette between her lips. Out in the yard the morning still belonged to the surrounding trees, lying supine in their branches and keeping the stony enclosure waiting in shade, the light from the window rolling softly on the black water of the reflecting pool. The sounds of verbal contention echoed along the wall and grew louder with the approach of the contending; Étienne, disheveled in sagging grey cable-knit and battle-stained jeans, trailed Gideon, the former attempting to impress something upon the latter, who refused to entertain it. In pondering Étienne’s tribulations Susan almost missed the bullet-like stroke of his mentor’s arm, Gideon landing a blow to the youth's mouth that knocked the sullen accusations from it, along with some of its more fundamental contents. His victim staggered, found his knees with his hands and let the bloody fragments trickle onto the flags while Gideon delivered his dispassionate analysis. They broke without another word, the elder dragging his shirt from his head as he walked toward the stables, the younger taking his misery to the car parked beside the yard. A voice behind her addressed her unwitting proximity to the kettle still breathing steam on the range.
“That’s just boiled... don’t go burning yourself.” it advised. Susan turned to see a stranger seated at the kitchen table, his hand around a coffee cup; she was seized by the narrow, glancing idea of his familiarity but her surprise and vague embarrassment overcame it. Before she could think of anything to say, he rose and excused himself with a tip of his head, leaving through the door to the yard and walking to a battered, bright blue Morris waiting across the bridge.
Voyeurism chastened by the visitor, she waited a discreet while before venturing out herself. The stones were cold through the soles of her slippers as she tied the robe of violet cashmere purveyed by her host and lit her cigarette, walking on toward the stables. One of the half-doors shuddered at her approach and the faint glow of gas flame pushed through the gaps in the weathered panel. She stooped beneath the divided door, blinking in the darkness of a space cleared of the partitions that had once delineated milking stalls and loose boxes. On a wooden bench topped with a stained and broken slab of corpse-white marble, the great head of a stag sat squarely on its cleanly-severed plane beneath a mighty umber coronet of antlers, their weight propped against one of the stone piles that stood like the pillars of a neolithic temple. The animal's brass-coloured eyes were downcast beneath their heavy lids in a look of modest resignation. Blood had wicked slowly across the low end of the bench onto the straw beneath. Like a Hadean chorus, a row of cervine forms hung before the furthest wall, curing in the darkness, the dry blue of their flayed flanks glowing softly in the gaslight.
Gideon stood beside the body of the stag in a black butcher’s apron, the lamp hissing while the animal’s weight swung slowly from the ceiling truss; she sat down on a milking stool with an absented gaze.
“You had some sleep?” he asked, reaching up to release the deer’s skin from its hocks with a small, leaf-bladed knife, turning the carcass slowly. Susan had become accustomed to the polarity of his commonplace inquiries, their simplicity creating a curious ease. Slowly he began to punch the hide down over the musculature, catching it in slack, silky pleats upon his forearm and tugging it free of the attenuated neck before setting it aside.
“Not really.” she replied, rubbing her eye and watching the curiously bloodless process in silence until he leant toward her, soliciting a draw on her cigarette, which she supplied, the smoke thickening their already misted breath. The dark weave of his apron formed a sharp-edged contrast to the colours of his naked arms and shoulders.
“Forgive the contrétemps. Étienne... his boyfriend fucks his sister an the whole world is in flames. Je m'en fous, you know? I am not eighteen."
“Everything’s complicated when you are.” Susan reminded him.
“So it seem.”
“There was someone in the kitchen. Brown hair... sounded Irish?”
“Lawrence... a friend.” Gideon related as he wheeled a clean barrow up to the neck of the suspended carcass, positioning it carefully. He paused with his blade on the narrow belly and gave her a warning glance, to which she shrugged, thoughtlessly. She was not prepared for the speed with which he exposed the gleaming paunch of grape and olive-hued organs, nor the deft intrusion of his arm into the cavity; it was swallowed to his shoulder before the entrails emerged and slithered down into the barrow, settling into a mass in which each shape remained discreet within their elastic cauls and membranes. He cut the liver free and offered her a slice, the feted organ's fine black grain relaxing on the blade, from which she accepted it, watching him lick the back of his knuckles. The taste shocked her, as dark and heavily metallic as a mouthful of her own blood, pushing her back off the stool as she ejected it onto the straw; it put a vampyre's gargoyle head on the neck of the body swaying from the ceiling and returned one of Siobhan's stinking candles to her hand. Her host chuckled.
“I thought you are the girl who like new things.” Gideon's smile conveyed the gently contumelious nature of the remark, though she did not reply. He stripped off his apron and left it hanging from a rafter, dousing his hands in a bucket. “Déjeuner?”
His retinue had abandoned empty bottles and greasy dishes on the pine benches lining the kitchen. Cursing them in absentia, he swept an armful of debris into a roasting tray and set off along the hall, returning in a fresh shirt without it while she stood in the light of the refrigerator door.
“Motherless salops. If Luc can’t learn manners, he should learn to lock his door. What have they left for us, these merde oiseaux? Half of a lemon an some bad milk?” When his prediction proved substantively correct, Susan took a chair and reached for the box of cereal she had secreted in the highest row of cupboards, enraged to find it empty.
“Bastards!” she exclaimed, dropping down beside the table in an attitude of dejection. The lycanthrope sighed and began to slice a head of garlic on the bench beside the range, feeding a piece of chestnut into the firebox and setting a pan on the heat. The smell of toasting fougasse drifted past her without visible effect; Gideon trimmed the liver neatly before addressing the spirit that oppressed her.
“You don't know why you don't hear from him.” he suggested.
She propped an elbow on the table.
"Three weeks is a long time to not hear from someone who can’t be quiet for three minutes.”
“It’s not personal, Sussan... don't take it that way. If you don't know where he is, no one can learn it from you. It’s okay... he does his best for you.” He laughed, the sound coupling with the flash of the meat tossed in the pan. “You don't think this is hard for him? What would he love more than to know you cannot live without him? Poor Sachiin.”
“I don’t think it would kill him to make a bloody phone call.”
He exclaimed to himself, shaking his dark head vehemently at the peevish tenor of her complaint, the galvanic strength of his arm scraping the base of the pan across the hob.
“Young people... you have everything, but you can’t clean a dish or wait a day, or take a bad thing like a man. So fucking impatient. In my own day, I wait six month to hear if my family had burn to death, and was pleased to at least have the truth, but now everyone they bitch an cry for nothing. He don't call you? Qu’est-ce que? Et alors! If you don't like it, take a little piece of plastic an fly to the far side of the world. Endure nothing. Putain... now I burn this.” Smoke rose from the edges of the pan and he pulled it from the heat. The folded documentation on the table before her included one stained by the foot of a coffee cup, and he nodded down at it. "You know what that is? That fils de pute in Praha, last year he buy the hahdri over the river, an now he bribe the mayor to cut the trees, to fuck with me. One time you could walk from Lensk to Rouen in the shade... now, I will have twelve more Étienne with nowhere to go, crying at my door. Don't worry, Auberjonois, they all say... you are geris alujh... chef de meute... no one will come for you. But they will, I know, an where do I run? Where can I take a hahdri and these baby alujha? You want troubles, choux? I will trade with you."
He shook his head to himself and threw wild thyme into the pan. The sight of him muttering over the bench drew her to her feet, and she joined him, easing two plates beneath his elbow as he dished out.
“Everybody’s pissy today.” she suggested.
“Don’t look like that... it’s not you, ça va? You’re okay with me.” He sat down at the table with her and rolled caramel onions onto the tines of his fork. “Don't worry about Sachiin. When he wants to leave, that’s not a secret he can keep. With me it was like this... our aventure, three hundred eighty nine years... to say au revoir... nine long month in the same argument... bordel de merde... he could have given birth.” He ate another mouthful and laughed to himself quietly, glancing back to her. “Allez, Sussan... you know there is no cruel bone in him... he is too lazy. You must pay him an command him to be cruel, if that’s what you want. Why push a shit uphill?”
“You know where he is, don’t you?”
“They are like ducks... if there is trouble, they go up.” he replied, flicking his thumb at the ceiling. “They are on a mountain somewhere, spitting an calling each other names." Her hair had set in a tall curve over the clip pressed to one side of her head by her pillow, its accidental shape amusing him, though she did not notice in her frowning intent on her plate. “My god, I sound so old and grognon. Crazy old loup, not so good in the morning. Keep your eyes open for the good an for the beautiful, as I told you. Fais moi confiance. An you know, Sussan, there’s always a place for you here.”
Her fork grew still in the ensuing silence and her head rose slowly, eyes finding his and allowing them to direct her toward the white shape beside the cup abandoned by the stranger. The sight of her name pencilled alongside Gideon’s in the midst of the envelope caused her to rise and seize it, both fists struggling with the thick bonded paper until booking confirmations and airplane tickets cartwheeled onto the table, a flat, cherry-red lollypop cowled in fluted plastic clattering amongst them. In her delight she remembered the breakfast left cooling before her and set the tickets down, reclaiming her seat and devoting herself once more to the meal.
“It’s been sitting there all morning, hasn’t it?” she smiled.
“It come with Lawrence, on his way back to Praha. So ah, yes.” he admitted, watching her slide the lollypop into the pocket of her robe.
“How much longer were you going to let me go on?”
He picked a sprig of thyme from his gravy and set it aside.
“Pendant un petit moment.”
Frost settled on the Paint Horse Trailer Park and its environs, lacing sagging awnings and the flat roofs of immobile mobile homes at the death of twilight. Dogs sheltered in shuffling huddles at the feet of faded tin walls while pregnant women chainsmoked in doorways, their sour, shiny faces limned by light thrown down from lamp posts. Trent’s narrow trailer had been his home for the decade that had passed since his surrender of the marital house to his former wife and her store clerk boyfriend. Its low structure was a powdery, flaking white without and paneled with bowed faux wood within; the sink was buried in dishes grown pungent with neglect, but a tall pile of khaki tottered on the olive velour bench beside the TV table, folded conscientiously. The glare from the street outside invaded through small barred apertures like stripes of poisoned vapour. A clicking fan unit circulated overheated air; Trent lay slumped before the television, a dying joint hanging from his parched lip, ash sifting onto his chequered shirt.
The park was quiet save for sporadic canine yapping and the canned laughter accompanying the shifting glow of stolen cable programming. The insects inhabiting the grass alongside the asphalt no longer sang, quieted by the premature cold. To Trent, their silence was a deep relief, their shrilling recalling such kindred songs from distant lands as he did not care to remember. Despite their abeyance he had drifted into sleep amid visions of purpuric equatorial sunsets, in which the heads of forest palms thrashed in the draft of a descending helicopter as he leant out over its skids, staring downward into rippling, lukewarm darkness.
The water he was dropped into rose waist-high, thick with coffee-hued silt and jungle leaves, hemmed by rafts of water hyacinth. He lifted his rifle clear of the river and began to wade against the sluggish current, surrounded by the burps and growls of invisible amphibians. His captain was dropped into point upstream; he waited for him to turn and beckon before falling in at the designated distance. The monsoon had poured the river out over its banks into the forest beyond, creating a vast, serpentine marsh plumed with the twining dragon shapes of rattan, moonlight fractured on their drooping fronds. Long after dark the heat lay febrile over the water, heavy with the ferrous stink of living mud and fermenting leaves and choked with mosquitoes, whining in both his ears and blundering into every orifice. He shook them from his head and waded onward, ducking branches, marking the shaggy garland of foliage that decked his leader’s helmet.
Trent ran screeds of aerial photography through his head, dismayed to find no convincing correlations in his viscid surrounds; cutting across an oxbow in his haste, he stepped into a sinkhole, the water rising suddenly past his chin. The log spanning the channel offered no assistance, dead bark coming away in his hands like rotted flesh as he grasped it, seeking elusive purchase underfoot.
“Sounds like you’re giving it to a fucking buffalo back here.” his leader hissed, teeth gleaming in his darkly-greased face as he dragged Trent from the hollow.
“This’s bullshit... we got the wrong fuckin ditch.” the latter murmured, climbing up onto the spongy bank. “Nothin round here makes sense... we bug out now and go back d...”
“The intel’s the size of your mom's dick... sustained activity, one click north.”
“Who gives a fuck if someone’s bagging up old gook shit out there?”
“One click north, so find your balls and fall in, asshole.”
Allowing his leader to drift too far ahead seemed like a tiny, crippled victory while he shoved through a guard of olive bamboo. Looking back, he glimpsed an ordered shape amid the undergrowth, lifting the canes to reveal a carved stone block stained black by the water. The curling feet of some clawed, half-avian figure confirmed their entry into the decrepit temple precinct that had inspired the speculative deviation from their martial purpose; he shook his head again, spat on the toppled block and turned upstream.
A lone night heron voiced its croaking discontent. The loss of contact with his captain perturbed him until he discovered the latter’s garlanded silhouette poised on a fallen teak spanning the channel. He paused, awaiting instruction, and was rewarded with a manual direction; a ripple curved around his waist as he complied, moving further out into the river, his captain beckoning him toward himself and directly into another unseen hole. Trent gasped and thrust his rifle over his head as he went under, sleighed out into the depths by sucking, sloping mud. Through flooded eyes he saw his companion as a black blur upon the teak, overlaid again by shifting clouds of insects, relinquishing his rifle and coughing out a half-drowned call for help. Upon the distant tree the figure looked down into the water, inclining its head in a moment that slowed Trent’s struggle until only the sound of his own laboured breathing scored its fluid descent from the bole; it was eaten wholly by the river, garlanded helmet drifting slowly downstream toward him.
The river flattened out like silk, welling against his legs and torso while he wrenched his boots free and was swept under, only to rise again some distance from the immuring hole. He gasped, shadows lying heavy in his eyes, the river shaping his clothes against his body. His breath rattled in his chest as he rolled and stroked downstream, glancing over his shoulder; something brushed against his thigh and he cried out, whirling backward into the fallen log that had impeded him before. Bracing against it, his feet finding the bottom, he stood wide-eyed while in the silence the mosquitoes settled, blanketing the open stretch before him. The heron boomed again; he ran his hand down over his belt and service pistol but had not worked it free before his legs were seized and his head sucked down under the log.
He passed out of consciousness briefly, the water closing over his face and his skull struck by a branch stub on the underside of the decaying tree. The blow worked with the burning eternity of submersion to enfeeble him, so that he barely knew he had been dragged free of the river and thrown onto mud like a carp flung from a net. He groaned, and was dealt a blow that left him senseless.
Water lapped at his boots when he stirred, finding himself lying beside his commander’s body in time to watch white hands grasping its collar. They turned the blade of a hunting knife in a circumnavigation of its neck, a gesture of almost magical swiftness that robbed the corpse of its head and left it so diminished that it seemed smaller by half to Trent’s deranged perception. The stump slopped blood into the silt, trimmed with a thin stripe of nape and wet hair. Gleaming red, the curving blade returned, sliding low past Trent’s eyes while a creature slit the corpse's sleeveless khakis and stroked a hand down over them, fingers tuned to the shapes hidden in the sodden garments, glowing so coldly in the moonlight that Trent attributed their number to the damage he could feel at the back of his skull. His head lolled as his own body was treated in the same manner, every utile item stripped and pitched into the river. He lay waiting for the hands to find his collar, croaking as they did, gravity drawing bloodied bubbles from the corner of his mouth into his ear. The knife bit into his neck so easily that he lay still even as the blade was halted on his stiff thews.
He looked up at its face, at its slick black mane and the long, golden eyes that stared, not at him, but away to the south. Dropping him to the mud, it rose, taller than seemed possible, like something stepped down from the stones of the forgotten temple, symmetry surviving the hallucinatory embellishments imposed by his panic and loathing. Turned down river from the narrow bank, the creature stood as though it had been called from that direction. Trent screwed his eyes closed against the sight of the black shapes on its back; they moved, and yet did not, writhing like flames in negative with the water in his eyes. It gave a looping whistle that echoed across the river, then stepped back into the water, leaving the bodies where they had fallen. Trent lay with his blood oozing in a warm pool about his shoulders for twenty minutes before a murky noise, becoming percussive, then a slash of blinding light that jumped the river restlessly aroused him, thudding downdraft sweeping the floating vegetation against the shore and whipping at the palms.
The worst part of the dream, aside from its historical reality, was that it revolved instead of resolving in a cycle of unblinking renewal. Sweat soaked the back of Trent’s shirt while he saw the dusk once more, and the heads of the tall palms thrashed wildly as he gazed down from the skids of a helicopter until his plunge into the river was derailed by the sharp sound of a fist upon a door. With his dry tongue clicking against his mouth his hand came down on an attenuated shotgun, duct-taped to the wall beside his chair, and he rolled onto his feet.
Josephine glanced at the movement darkening the glass beside the trailer door and tipped back her trucker cap. She wore a coverall, her hair tucked into its collar; Trent scowled, glanced over his shoulder and swore to himself before admitting her.
She stood back from the doorway once inside, allowing him to press it closed behind her, sealing off the sound of barking dogs and cussing drunks. The dry stink of the trailer hit her hard but she put the blunt snout of her handgun to the back of his balding skull before he could read the silence. The shots flashed white and dropped him onto a stripe of plastic carpet protector.
Stepping over his trembling body, she held his lighter flame to the edge of the velour squab and turned the fan upon the hungry little ember, watching it eat busily into the foam. His skin was softer than she had imagined as she felt for a pulse beside the crescent scar on the side of his neck, scraped by some blunt razor and smelling faintly of laundry soap. His heart still throbbed chaotically; she stepped back and put another round between his shoulder blades.
In the bitter darkness outside she jerked her weight against the door handle, testing the lock, and stooped to pitch the pistol beneath the trailer.
* Read the next chapter *