B E L T A N E
“Bonsoir, Edouard! Nous sommes ici pour nique votre maison, ça va?”
Cajoling French bounced up the stairs and grew louder still as the number of fluent speakers crowding the entrance hall expanded exponentially, their exchanges punctuated by booming, confluent laughter. Susan could hear William’s voice in the disturbance as she stood on the landing with her dinner plate, unwilling to descend into the throng disgorged from the squadron of vehicles that had flattened the front lawn. They were a largely homogenous cohort, smelling of hair product and hashish and stentorian pour homme, sporting coppery suntanned limbs, polo shirts, piercings and conspicuous masculine bravado, from which she guessed their awareness of Edward’s absence.
They espied her in the midst of their grinning surveys, one young man tugging William’s sleeve and nodding back at her from beneath his dark crop.
“Sachiin... qui est cette fille? T'as vu ce cul? Ask her to come down...”
William glanced up at her.
“Christabel... nous avons bollchu...” he called, with an introductory wave of his arm toward the door. An enormous vat of dented metal was dragged laboriously inside by a party of attendants; after them came a girl in black, librarian glasses framing her heavily-kohled eyes, accompanied by a stranger who, from his resemblance to her employers seemed to be the elusive guest to which William had referred. Bede glanced up at her and gave a brief, acknowledging smile before following his companion into the drawing room.
“I think I’ll just go up.” Susan replied. “Oh... your brother called while you were out... he said he’ll be back in about an hour. Something about the flight being nobbled.” William fell silent, stilled along with those of his companions still in earshot, and she waited while the full implications of her advisory settled upon them, smirking at the effect. “I’m joking.” she added, finally.
"Spank her, Guillaume!" his friend cried.
"I'm too scared to now." he confessed. "But it's May Eve... you have to give us a kiss, poupée. Bad luck not to." William announced. She murmured to herself, then clumped halfway down the stairs where she leant out over the balustrade to oblige him. William fended off Luc's demand for the same consideration and grasped the bannisters, drawing himself up to meet her. Susan touched her lips to his forehead, then to the corner of his smile when he turned it to her.
“They could have taken that around the side.” She nodded at the huge vat and the manner in which its handlers were struggling to pass it through the drawing room door.
“They’re from Languedoc and their parents were cousins... if you upset them, they start crying and shitting their pants.”
“Hey, serpent-visage... tais-toi! My mother she is a whore, not an inbred! Remember that when you are fucking her, eh?” called one of the subjects of his caution.
“You’re not coming down?” William reached out to slap Luc's head in the midst of the lurid demonstration the latter had begun for her benefit. "I'll lock him in the garage..."
“Scorsese marathon.” she shrugged, nodding up the stairs. “Have a good one.”
Gouging the parterre with the feet of the cumbersome vat, the party crossed the lawn beside the pool and disappeared from Susan’s window view into the distant trees with William’s ghettoblaster, culling firewood from the edge of the orchard as they went. Their site settled upon, Bede accepted the bollchu ladle to the disgust of the French contingent who clamoured for precedence.
“My god...” he grimaced. “If it wasn’t Prometheus who taught werewolves to make bathub absinthe, it must have been someone else who’s liver regenerated overnight. Sachiin, this is Fred... we met in Venice." he added, referring to the darkly-clad girl.
"Frederica." she said quickly.
"You may not be charmed, but I am." William smiled at her.
"She’s ah, fully au fait, in case you were wondering.” The girl sat down between them in the tall grass, pushing it back from her knees and adjusting her glasses; William looked from one to the other and let his mouth drop open. “She’s very learned, you realize... art school.” Bede smiled nervously; their host had not recovered from their initial revelation.
"This was a really stupid idea..." Frederica confided to her companion.
"No no... you are... probably... entitled, under the circumstances... it's just... fucking hell... B's a bigger chickenshit than I am." William admitted, regarding his friend with the ghost of a frown. “Art school? You’ve heard of my brother then? Serious artist... ugly oils on canvas, looks like a rotten bird hit an angry windscreen?”
“Sure... his stuff's blowing up right now. This place is amazing... it would be so great to get in here with medium format before all the work's done.” she sighed as she looked back over her shoulder through the trees. William scratched at his head for a moment and almost replied before he was interrupted by the youth behind them.
“This place is like the bomb!” the latter agreed. “We can go crazy here! Not like France, you know, with all the stupid rule an asshole vampyre death squad... fuck the cochon noir, I tell you... I will fuck them up the ass, an then Étienne, he can have them after with his tiny baby cock. But Sachiin, allez... we need to bring you an your brother home with us... it’s no good.” Bede lay back against the grass and propped his head on his hands, glancing down his nose at William. “...An Unite de Recherche d’Anomalie... fuck you too, eh? Loupgarous put you into plastic bags.”
“That was you guys?” asked William, looking to his cousin. Luc patted his stomach, lowered his chin and emitted a tremendous belch as though it were the opening note of baritone part.
“Not er, exactement... maybe we have some help from Auberjonois..."
"You do his fucking garden."
"N'importe quoi... Léon an Étienne, they polish wood also.” A pine cone struck the back of the smirking speaker’s head, loosed from the hand of Étienne.
“Thank you baby Jesus.” William murmured at the contingent of local alujha sauntering past the pool toward them, bearing gifts and greeting their Continental counterparts with sly digital gestures and other vulgarisms. Upon arrival in the grove they dumped a sack of charcoal, petrol tin and the gutted, headless carcass of a small ungulate down on the grass. Clothing and accents aside, they resembled their compeers closely, their disconcerting vitality a ubiquitous equivalence. The foremost wiped the grease from the carcass on the back of his jeans and lit a cigarette, his faded leprechaun-green mohawk tied down in a tail. He nodded toward the vat of bollchu with parental pride.
"Ca-leb." William smirked.
"You like this batch a’ b? We knocked back the artemesia by... shit... half, I guess, hit it with some sativa, Sticky Gerald's Aphex Doom clone, man... we put in like an acre of that shit under a fuckin badass dual rig..." The newcomer shook his head as though he barely believed his own temerity. "Brought a few pounds down... oh yeah, and scopolia, we got scopolia like you wouldn’t fuckin believe this year, coming up along the interstate... we got that up while things were gibbous, so it’s extra fuckin gamey... Mallet dropped some amanita in along the way, he’s a sneaky bastard. So yeah, maybe... don’t go operating machinery. Do we set some shit on fire now, or will old Ed bust a fucking vessel? Don’t want him at the farm in a bad fuckin mood because we eighty-sixed his lawn... we don’t have to cook it... just thought, y’know, it’s more fuckin polite...”
William glanced at Frederica, who stared in horror at the florid colours of the caracass lying within an arm’s length of her leg.
“I think we'll go with the fire.” he advised. They watched the party toss the collection of dead branches into a pile and douse it liberally with solvent before leaping backward as the whole went up in a great burst of jacinth flame. As one, the trio crabbed back against the trees to avoid the singeing heat and the sight of the meat being loaded onto its spit to the sound of whooping approval. “If only carnivores would just drop the shit and eat each other.” William sighed, sharing the girl’s disapprobation. “So you’re baelna rather than dralna?"
She blew her heavy black bang from her forehead.
“Oh yeah it’s baelna alright... I have a hard enough time just like, cutting the heads off flowers, so I don’t know if I'll ever be really ready to get jumped in by the kitten-skinners... guess I’ll go with the Green side of things til I get disillusioned with society.” Frederica mused over the oblivious cackling of the other guests.
“Don't feel too bad... the green side of the Craft's probably OG... it’s just that the Red girls use machetes on anyone who says that. Have you...” William suppressed a smile, shaking his head at the ground. “Met Nyāti?”
“Nope. Don't do mama drama.” She spoke and smiled with the perfect ease of someone never punished for the expression of either. “I'm not scene. Nothing political... I mean, it’s great that there’s a community, but I really do not like vampyres, and the lunar side of things...” She looked pointedly over her shoulder. “Not so much either.”
“Nobody likes vampyres...” William assured her.
“Look, it’s really fine. I don’t do hardcore, no one else is involved...”
“Frederica, believe me when I say you can’t trust the normals..." Bede interjected. "It’s not that we don’t enjoy their company, it’s just that when adversity strikes, they’re heavily inclined to drop the portcullis on your head in their haste to differentiate themselves. You must be careful, and that does mean being affiliated. For the peer review if nothing else.”
“You guys... now you’re freaking me out.” Frederica complained.
“Hey...” Caleb agreed, interrupting his eavesdropping to lean over and hand them the bollchu ladle. “Better to freak you out now than toss a fuckin medical waste dump for your bodyparts later... try that shit in summer. Lamb... you mind if I put out a call? I got some friends who know some people...”
“Do these people have a pulse?”
“Hell yeah. Some of them’ll let you take a core temp. I’ll hook you up.” The sound of car doors slammed on the road outside the house rendered the gesture redundant, however; the bollchu master grinned and slicked down his mohawk in concupiscent expectation as a throng of heavily-painted and thickly-bejewelled women rounded the side of the house, bearing shopping bags bulging with alcohol and foodstuffs. “Gotta love the kitten-skinners. They always bring a fuckin plate.”
“Caleb, hopefully they’ll get drunk and do stuff to us, so let’s just think about what we say before we say it and concentrate on getting bad-touched.” William reminded him earnestly. Frederica stood up and brushed off her legs.
"I think I'll get back... I'm halfway through a thing... gotta turn it in by the weekend, so..."
She reached down to shake William's hand again before beginning the walk back to the house with Bede, in time to pass the incoming dralna party. Smoke swooped down through the seated conclave and they waved it away with complaining hands. William smiled a greeting to the witches that murmured and trailed their fingers through his hair as they passed him by.
“B... why are really you here?” he asked without preamble as the latter returned. “She's nice, but you’re her summer bitch, and Nyāti sure as hell didn’t cross the Atlantic to have a thing with an art school witch." Behind them, the growing volume of Luc and Caleb's exchange overrode Bede's halting reply.
"Everyone say to me, Luc, don't take your nice clothes, Americans they are all salopes but that's not true... they are fucking coincé an I have no baiser at all! C'est naze!" The locals pricked up their ears and scowled, Caleb shaking his head regretfully.
"That's a pretty hard thing t'say about my people there Luc... cuts me deep when a man can't find a slut in a freakin slutstorm and dammit, I'll fuck you myself if it makes you feel more welcome." he promised. "I'll peg anything that twerks my way, and you sure as hell aint the worst that ever has, jesus... I'd call you pretty if it weren't a fuckin week off the full." he added, referring to the three-quarter moon overhead.
"Fancy talk won't get you to the cigare, mon ami." Luc suggested, insouciant.
"He's more brokeback than downtown." William warned. "You'll be lucky if he spits in his hand."
Those between them shuffled back; proximity did not visibly deflate either protagonist, and Luc shook out his arms, cracking his neck to one side.
"Allez?" he inquired.
"Fuckin A." laughed Caleb, unbuckling his belt to the acclaim of their companions. Bollchu got the better of their physical coordination and sent them staggering sideways through the fire, Caleb throwing the Frenchman down into the grass beyond the charcoal where they tongued and pawed at one another hungrily while spectators dug dollar bills and cigarettes from their pockets, showering them with palpable encouragement. Their trajectory spawned an argument between the squabbling cooks, who cried out in two languages as the crudely-spitted carcass dived into the cinders in a burst of sparks and ashes.
William shook his head as they began to trade accusations.
“Étienne... qu'est-ce que tu fous... eat it, or bury it.” he called, leaning sideways to avoid the rustic clinch absorbing his two friends as it rolled in his direction. Pouring scorn, the witches displaced the fire’s scowling attendants and usurped their duties, swigging from vodka bottles and demanding the bollchu ladle.
When William dreamed it was often of remembered things, visions charged with partial, elusive significance, faces and voices, joys and horrors, the tenderness of familiar hands and the still-bitter sting of recrimination. At other times, long passages of mnemonic life returned to him in their entirety and he would awaken to an alien world that seemed far less material than the departing dream. Lying on the ground beneath the tree, his outline painted dim red by the distant glow of the fire, he wiped blindly at his face and rolled onto his back beside a hookah that had fallen into a similar recumbence. Around the makeshift hearth half a dozen figures were still partially sensible, but they were greatly outnumbered by those who had succumbed.
Sachiin's painted saddle creaked as he stood in his stirrups and slid down the cloth swathing his face, the glare thrown up from sinuous crescents of pearl-coloured sand drawing his pupils into slivers. Muttering, he caught the pommel and climbed up to balance barefoot on the mare's back while the horse dozed, blinking away the flies clustered around her eyes. Even this new vantage was frustrated by the layers of fractious air boiling over the distant wadi that was the focus of his interest, obscuring the size of the Frankish corps monopolizing its ephemeral waters, if not their telltale colours, glimpsed as they flapped listlessly. His ears were of little use to him, the dunes' curvaceous interfluence perverting all sound loud enough to carry through them, and he sat back down, patience dissolved as much by bitter introspection as the day they had been forced to wait for water. Behind him the band of Imazighan mercenaries of his brother's retinue had dismounted and erected a shelter from portions of their voluminous blue alasho, contriving a small chip fire for tea and gossiping in the luxury of shade. Kala'amātya himself sat on his brown mare with his back to the sun, coaxing a needle and thread through a length of unfinished bridle.
“Rhissa says that to his reckoning, a sound black goat is worth more than any woman he has shared a tent with thus far.” he related, referring to the topic of nomad conjecture. Sachiin swung the plume of a balding swat past his nose, eyes narrow.
“A goat is worth three score chebel pressed to overflowing with the shaitans.” he muttered. His brother made a brief protective sign with his right hand.
“Siith ilsii y’li sivai'isha. Such blasphemy."
Swinging a leg over the neck of his horse, Sachiin hunched in a manner befitting his mood.
“I am far more sinned against than sinning.”
“What more can you wish from life than to pass summer in the desert, fattening Rana’s purse while she eats grapes by the Loire?” Kala'amātya observed, leaning over to bite through the thread. Sachiin stared hard at the back of his head.
"Was it not enough to carp like a fishwife all the way to Palestine? I wish only for some great wave to sweep her into the sea." Sachiin murmured dully, staring down at his horse's shadow. "And you besides. You will both cry out to me in your despair, but I will be deaf to your entreaties.”
Kala'amātya accepted a cup from one of the nomads.
“Forswear servitude and you'll have no need of fickle calamity.”
“Foreswear your accursed counsel..." Sachiin grasped his head as though it were beset by hornets. "Does nothing else concern you? If my wife were to fall into the Garabogazköl tomorrow, you would drag her out, for fear of having to discuss some other matter."
His brother regarded him with an expression almost private in its obscurity, though its unflattering gist was familiar enough to him. Shaking his head, he emptied the last of his water over his veil and glanced back at the conclave behind him as they unfurled prayer rugs and kneeled within their mirhabs.
“Which spirit do they plague with their wailing?”
“The god of the Arabs." Kala'amātya replied, stowing his handiwork. "Or of the Franks. They seem like enough, to my benighted pagan eye.”
"La'iah... they are mujahidîn, in both camps.”
“I have never been paid so well to murder strangers, and thus the holiness of this affair can scarcely be questioned.”
Sachiin lay back on his horse's rump and shaded his eyes with his hand.
"May the Mother turn their flesh to ice. What of their number?”
Devoting his full attention to the mirage-shrouded detachment, Kala'amātya counted off the men and horses until the tortured air defeated him. The corps before them were almost unaccountably distant from their beleaguered stronghold; news of the débacle at Acre had flown through the Levant and he surmised that they had fled the very conditions they had created. His immersion in the region's perverse vicissitudes since turning south from Samarkand had taught him contempt for all involved and greatly sharpened his rapacity. He consulted the nomads from his horse before returning a verdict.
“Rhissa says there are twice as many Christians as one sees, since the white devils carry witches and djenoun with them to increase their number at will."
Sachiin replied without looking up from studying the jewel tied around his neck, its Carolingian artistry marking it as the keepsake of some noble Frank.
“Rhissa has passed too many days in the erg."
"He has seen this evil prodigy many times."
"If there were witches to be had nearby, my yard would drag me thither and it does not. I say there be forty Christians, and that they be Templar.”
Kala'amātya’s mount swung its tasseled head impatiently. Sitting up, Sachiin opened his mouth with the intention of supporting his own assertion as a line of French knights broke over the crest of the dune and fell upon them in a heaving charge of airborne sand and dark, colossal horseflesh. His mare flew up on her hind legs and was struck by two leviathan contemporaries as the line braked around them on the slope, under the crimson and white of their banners; they toppled together, flattened against the sand and harrowed by the cleated hooves of the chargers thundering over them. Wrapping himself around a stout black limb, Sachiin felled the hapless animal into a heap of sweating flesh and tangled caparison, rendering its knight as helpless as a cast beetle in his cocoon of padded mail, left leg crushed by the floundering weight of his steed. Sachiin swung his sword but lost the credit to his brother, the latter thrusting a captured standard through the bars of the victim’s visor from his saddle. Kala'amātya planted it through the helm and another Templar stallion ploughed head-first over the haft, its rider snapped in two as he was whipped face-first into the ground. Catching the charger's harness as it kicked onto its feet Sachiin swung up and turned the beast with hands and heels, riding hard into the shoulder of another. He was thrown against the rider scrabbling for a hold on its slick neck and dragged himself into the saddle behind him, hauling back the gorget from the christian's throat and ripping the quillon from his waist. The point of the blade burst through the man's nape, almost into his own neck; while his victim bucked beneath the impaling steel Sachiin rode again at the moiling Franks, employing the body before him as a shield against their wheeling maces.
At some small distance Kala'amātya dropped from his horse and took a stroke to the back from an unseated knight; when he did not bleed red or falter, the perpetrator was stiffly transfixed, crying out as his head was seized by the stranger he had so rashly engaged. His scream drowned in whistling, liquid gutturals as his adversary ripped back his chin and tore out his throat with pointed, blade-like teeth, the slick veins and snapping grey chords spat in a mass onto the ground. The knight fell like a lopped branch and Kala'amātya drew his knives, wearing the fresh blood under his bleached stare into the fracas.
Obliging a nomad who lay pleading to be dispatched, Sachiin caught a chopping blow that opened his left arm, striking at the offender before pausing to wipe the jetted blood from his eyes. In his momentary distraction he took a mace to the side of his skull from a knight looming behind them, its ball head clouting him flat, the first of two converging avengers hoisting an axe with both mailed fists. The blade fell and bit deeply though he fended its haft with his arm, shearing flesh from his throat and bouncing on the diamond-hard matter of his spine. Dust flooded the darkness in his chest; he dropped his arms to his sides and performed a convulsion that satisfied his assassins though with their backs turned he rolled quickly, wrapped his oozing neck with his head cloth and reclaimed his lost sword.
They had been reinforced by a band of tribesmen who rode hard at the occidentals with their diverse blades. Listing slightly, Sachiin made his way through the edge of the fighting, swinging at those that blundered into him. He killed a screaming standard bearer amid the last knot of Franks afoot, dropping here and there to relieve Templar corpses of their rings and religious jewels with expert fingers. On the flank of the dune his brother broke a helmless knight's jaw and knocked the man onto his face, punching twin blades into his shoulders. Shucking them free, Kala'amātya seized the thatch of pale, sweat-greased hair atop his head and sliced a broad swatch from his scalp, stowing it with the other bloodied trophies in his belt. As though grasping at their own deaths the unhorsed men descended on him, insensate or already losing their blood to the parched sand, to have their glistening bones bared to the sun, to be docked of limbs and cut down with weapons impounded from their own hands by an adversary as silent and automated as any nightmare agent. Their desperation met no answer, nor could his victims impress any memorial upon him, their faces two blurred shades of the same dull colour, their appeals and threats unheeded mime. In the midst of killing Kala'amātya enjoyed a privileged and intimate tranquility born of rhythm and stilled detachment, in which no troubles save the geometric challenges of violence could survive, muting the few blows that broke his guard and the intolerable heat that forced the dying to slough their mail and gambesons like a clutch of frantic crustaceans. A slew of bruise-coloured innards slithered from the belly of a senior knight when he opened it with both knives, the mass raveling almost to the ground; their owner stared down at them while he was relieved of his head. Stepping backward, Kala'amātya was called out of himself by a sound more remote than the encircling tumult and turned with his brother toward the shrilling cries of the remaining nomads, staring with them to the south.
A cloak of stinging, gale-borne sand swept over the dunes, thickening to lurid orange as it whelmed them, choking the screams of men and horses, as hot as a belch from a kiln and roaring like a funneled blaze. Sachiin felt it scour his face and bank around the tumbled bodies at his feet and climbed out for fear of immurement. The sun receded to a dead, flat coral disc, though he dared not remove the cloth from his eyes, crouching in the lee of the mounded dead to ride out the storm.
Only when the hiss of the habub died away with its swing to the north did he lower his veil. Kala'amātya leant over to haul him up onto his horse, his face and long blue sleeves crusted with blood, a thick wad of bicoloured banners tied about his neck for safekeeping. Whistling for his brother's mare, they waited while she jogged down the dune toward them, trailing her reins. Half a mile away across the sand a small band drove a covey of stumbling captives toward a ribbon of sang de boeuf sunset, the colour hovering beneath thundercloud that spat bifurcated lightning at the horizon, the two skies meeting with the sound of clashing stone.
“The Caliph promised a mare from his own stable for each of these, so I will go to Baghdad and hold him to his word." Kala'amātya advised, referring to his looted pennants. "We may find riches enough to stave off a beating from your beloved.”
Sachiin eased himself into his own saddle as his mount drew alongside, rocking back and forth to seat it squarely on her withers then devoting himself to scraping grit from the wounds in his neck with claws that slid from the end of his fingers. His voice returned as his throat began to close.
“No such gold exists.”
"Sai a' si ina'abiih ilalae'an..."
"If I abandon Rana, I trade an idle scourge for one that slavers on my trail."
His brother raised a hand to the nomads stripping a christian bailiff in passing.
"If you mean to return to her you can make your own way. I will not suffer you while you abide her."
"And in that, you could not oblige her more, so what am I to do?"
“Cut out the dead flesh where you find it.” Kala'amātya recommended.
“My dead flesh has a name and face.”
“Her kind had no thought for mine.”
Able to devise no meaningful rebuttal, Sachiin turned his horse from beside his brother's as rain began to pound the dunes in the wine-coloured dusk, riding for the deserted wadi on his own.
The hushed sound of movement over the cedar needles carpeting the ground around them lifted Bede’s head in the pre-dawn darkness. From the heart of the expiring fire a figure lifted a blackened branch and brought it with her, weaving a slow path through the bodies strewn about them. Bede watched her white legs moving beneath the carnivore print of her stolen dress; ignoring all but William’s sleeping form, she stood so closely by him that her hooked toes almost brushed his careless arm. Slowly, she lifted the branch in both hands.
“Rana...” murmured Bede, keeping his gaze deferential as he addressed her. “Il’jiit Sachiin il’avai’ia shai’la.”
She looked down on the object of her foray with eyes that streamed unceasingly, conceding nothing of her intent, and for an airless moment he believed his petition had failed. But with the charred limb in her hands the creature turned instead toward the pale face of the house standing beyond the unmown veldt.
Edward’s sedan stood at the edge of the grove, front doors splayed and headlights dimly-coloured by the dying battery. Susan had lain with her head under her pillow against both the music that had issued from its system and various arrivals and departures; the ordeal greatly reduced her compunction at hauling a garbage bag of bottles and cans amongst the fallen. The bollchu vat lay on its side like the body of an abandoned spacecraft, the French contingent scattered as though by a percussive blast around the hearth and amid the clean bones of the spit roast, vodka bottles and discarded clothing. One of them groaned, feet lying in the beer-doused charcoal, and pulled his shirt over his head. Susan plucked up the packet of Continental cigarettes beside him and lit one for herself. The body she took to be William’s lay on its face in a bed of needles, hands upturned by its sides. She lifted the clattering rubbish and dropped it beside his head.
“Answerphone.” he murmured without moving, the word muffled by his posture.
“Mr Lamb, I just wanted you to know I used the kitchen tongs to pick up a used condom, so you'll have to buy some new ones. Tongs, I mean. I couldn’t find a shovel.”
“In the car.”
“The shovel. In the boot. Check the... no, wait...” With a deep breath and supreme effort William rolled over and sat up. “Don’t." Beneath his open shirt pine needles had stuck to the demonic features drawn in several shades of lipstick over his chest and stomach; a long tongue descended from the pictograph's chin to the region still marginally concealed by the deranged buttons of his fly. The same colours were smeared around his mouth, over his ears and on each side of his neck. She stared at the strange imperviousness of his smooth features to the abuse accorded them, handing him the cigarettes. He placed one between his lips. “And er... don’t turn around.” he added, flagging the sound of someone struggling with their jeans and urinating in the trees behind her.
"I still have South African techno stuck in my head."
“Sorry... alujha DJs." he sighed, unaware of the minor indiscretion. "I'm so sorry about this... it’s all that fucking texting nowdays... fucking... médias social... all OMG, GTFO, LOL... every petite boum you put on gets out of hand.” William explained. He held out his hand to her and she relented, hauling him to his feet, from which he kicked an automatic pistol beneath the legs of its faineant owner before it could attract her attention. “B’s still here, I think... we’ll get it sorted. Don’t worry.”
“I’m not worried. I'm the housekeeper... you're the groundskeeper.” she assured him, dropping her cigarette onto the remains of the fire and walking after him to his brother’s car. He sat down in the front seat, staring blankly at his reflection in the mirror and using his shirt to wipe the colour from his face. “I do need to talk to you about something, though, if you’re up to it.”
“I know it was loud, and I will make it up to you... in fact, have some time off... go crazy til Ed gets back. I’ll get Luc and Étienne
some aprons.” he sighed. “They’ve probably got their own.”
“Mr Lamb...” He closed his eyes at the sound of it and she smiled briefly to herself. “I was in my room last night and... I saw something.” There was a note of hesitancy in her voice and he looked up from making an attempt to start the car. Someone had stowed a shopping bag stuffed with the gigantic terminal buds of two dozen marijuana plants on the back seat, filling the interior with their thick olive smell. “I think it’s probably better if I just show you.” she concluded.
Susan helped him to his feet once more and together they traversed the lawn; the golden pheasants had been joined by the young peacock gifted by a guest and the jewelled quartet clucked contentedly by the pool where they picked winged ants from the sandstone. She led him into the shade beside the house, walking backwards from it and peering up into the lime-green canopy to point out a limb some six metres from the ground.
“I’d dozed off and then realised I’d forgotten to close the curtains, so I sat up, and there was someone sitting there. The light shines into the tree, so I saw it really clearly... they were looking right at me.” She frowned back at him, surprised to see that he required no persuasion. He walked to the trunk while she continued. “On that branch there... the one that comes out toward the window."
William emptied his pockets onto the ground and caught the lowest limb, swinging upward and climbing into the elm. Susan located his feet amongst the dappled, glowing foliage.
"Right there, where you are." she called. He sat against the trunk and saw the silvery bloom had been rubbed from the bark before him, supporting her claim. From his position he could see directly into the garret, the paisley of her quilt and the lax drape of the clothing hanging from the bedside chair all perfectly apparent.
“If I had to tap a pervert it would be Luc, but his victims are usually more than willing... and I don't think he was climbing anything after Cay was done.” he replied.
“If he was the one inside with you, it wasn’t him...”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes... it was a woman.”
Descending, he hung for a moment and allowed his grip to slide from the bark as he digested her remark. Though it was only faintly-limned, she did not enjoy the way his unease correlated with her own.
“Dark hair, some sort of dress, definitely female.” she added, folding her arms. “I don’t mean to be a princess or anything, but my rooms are private... maybe you could let people know that next time you have a... thing? Anyway... I just wanted to tell you.” William frowned as she lifted his black record bag from the grass. "Um... is this yours?" He accepted it from her, shaking the dew from it. "You said something about me having the day off..."
He shrugged absently.
"Pas de probléme."
"I wouldn’t mind a swim later. Let me know when everyone’s gone.” she called, pausing in the sun by the corner of the building to shed her apron and pull the pins from her hair, the prospect of a providential afternoon lighting her grin. William murmured a distracted reply, then looked back across the lawn to Bede, who stood alone before the grove.
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