A S P H O D E L
Girls with faces buffed smoother than dressed stone and cushioned, nude-glossed lips ushered Opal through a caramel maze of blonded veneer, past orchids poised in bud vases set into recesses. In the unforgiving grasp of her pale pants suit she cared not for meridian synergies or lymphatic coaxing, occupied instead by the ferric taste persisting in her oral crevices, sour little allusions to the meal retained within the infinitely capacious reservoir beneath her ribcage and slowly suffusing her cold tissues. The smocked girls showed her to a massage suite beneath a glass-block ceiling; the evening had turned it rufous grey but she scowled up at its transparency before stepping underneath it. Rachel lay face down on a plinth of padded marble while attendants trailed garlands of herbs over her naked skin, avoiding the chakra stones set at careful intervals on her oiled torso. Opal looked over her proportions with a jaundiced eye, aware how shortly gravity would start exacting the full price of its connivance in their splendor. She lifted the gold-chained tote from the neighbouring credenza and tipped its contents onto the wood. Rachel's eyes flew open.
"Invading the Lamb property again, in your endless quest for degredation. You really are determined to ruin the chance you might have had with any Sotherby-Curtis, aren't you?” Scrolling through the calls on Rachel's phone, Opal walked slowly around the plinth. "You thankless little bitch."
“Nicholas Sotherby-Curtis is gay." the former reminded her as the attendants shrank from her shoulders and began devoting themselves to her feet.
“Which is why he needs someone to marry, produce two viable offspring and smile until their face hurts while he runs for governor. I didn’t pay for those teeth so you could wear them down on deviant genitalia." Opal touched a hand to her immobile hair, inspecting a vial of white powder from amongst Rachel's belongings. "You are beyond pathetic. What's next? Snorting up this garbage until a frat boy wouldn't jerk off onto your face unless you paid him? If the columnists pick this up I'll make sure you spend the next three seasons in residential care. Stay away from that house.”
"Wil-liam is obsessed with me. What am I supposed to do? And who is that person they have there? Some kind of crazy dwarf?"
Opal frowned at the lilies in their wall vase, each bloom plucked of its velvety anthers so that they seemed blinded.
“I sent over a housekeeper. I want the place cleaned up before I use it for the group show. And yes... she was petite... had a kind of... I think the word I’m looking for is milkmaid.” Opal turned her head as she swallowed down the flush of pink saliva in her mouth. “That love of your life is probably so exclusively obsessed with you he's bending her over something as we speak.” She shot a glance toward the masseuses as they stood with wide-eyed stares, hands stilled upon their subject's ankles; the smaller girl knocked a bottled candle from the corner of the credenza with a nervous elbow, though Opal's reaction was tempered by the appearance of a receptionist at the panel door.
“Ms La Rue, there’s someone here for you... a Mr Lamb. He’s uncomfortable about waiting any longer...”
Opal glanced back over her shoulder and addressed herself to Rachel.
“Go talk to him. I have calls to make.”
“I have an irrigation, and he hates me...” Rachel insisted, bare flesh shuddering like refrigerated consommé.
Edward’s sphinx-like features brought her worst anxieties into focus as she espied him from the doorway of the courtesy lounge; Rachel mouthed an affirmation and lifted the collar of her plush white robe, crossing the quiet bar toward him as if he had been waiting for her all along. He sat alone in a mood that stained the air around him like a halo in forboding reverse, a low glass in his hand.
“Opal’s taking care of something. Why don’t you get me a drink?” she smiled, lowering herself into the club chair before him. “She told me about the group show... kudos. Sounds like you're really building a name.” When he did not reply she repeated herself, to no apparent avail. “It's so weird... I mean, wherever I go, I hear somebody talking about your pieces, or about Wil-liam... it just feels like fate, you know. And with Opal getting behind your work, that's... I mean..." She tossed her golden ponytail back over a shoulder. "You don't know where Wil-liam is, do you? Now I have some time for him I can't raise his damn phone... that thing is always broken...” Edward set down his single malt and stared through her face into the space beyond; she blinked tightly. “I knew it... he's with that hooker again... that son of a bitch...”
“That’s my mother you’re insulting.” he replied. The thought of the two sharing an origin was a notion that disturbed her deeply.
"What do you want me to say? You think, out of all the people in the fucking world that I actually chose him?" Rachel snapped, glaring at him over the vegetable juice that had been set down on the table. “You don't choose your soulmate, you fucking find each other..." Rage deranged the stiff, pursed poise she had maintained despite her dread of him, pushing her down in her chair and darkening the tone of her petulant utterances until she became once more aware of his scrutiny. Edward reviewed the length of thigh she extracted from her robe and draped over its twin, the two shallow creases that crossed her throat, and the lips that he had never seen naked; she offered them willingly, infusing the display with a languor that tightened the skin around her eyes and pointed her toes downward.
“Do you dream, Rachel?”
She laughed and looked up at the ceiling, the contents of her glass oozing over its lip.
“Of course I dream. I just... I don’t have the time to sit around remembering that crap.” Emboldened by the question's obscurity, she licked her glass and favoured him with her best side. “Ed-ward, how can you even be this messed up? You're scared, I can see it. You're scared of having to be your authentic self around another human being." His gaze remained with her as her smirk developed. "We all have to start somewhere. What are you thinking right now?"
His pupils were cinched into stationary shards of darkness.
“I'm wondering how you look when someone fucks you. When they're calling you Rebecca. Thinking of their stepdaughters.”
She glanced away, flashing toothy acknowledgement at a passing attendant, tugging nervously on an earring. Returning her blue eyes to his face Rachelle laughed, its pointless modulation an unwitting reprisal.
“No one ever talks that way while we're making love.”
“Do they ever say anything?”
She leant forward in her chair, grasping both its arms in a renascent fury.
"You really think you can run me off? You don't have a fucking hope in hell."
"Have you ever heard a tungsten blade passing through an adult femur? I get the first four notes of Ode to Joy." Rachel shrank back, glancing around herself as he rose. "Come to the house again and I'll put you in three holes."
In the privacy of his sedan Opal removed the cosmetic dentures from her mouth and slid them into her handbag; without them, her voice took on a lashing sibilance, hissing past the points of her remaining teeth.
“Where have you been? I had to tell the buyers you were at a treatment centre.”
"Whatever it was, I hope it bled euros." Opal remarked dryly, drawing the tips of her finger and thumb over the corners of her smirk to catch the lipstick in the creases.
“I was happy to correct a power imbalance for the good of the general community."
“Is there such a thing? Power is like Armani, darling... not everyone can wear it, but that's just nature in her wisdom.” She chuckled and picked someone else’s hair from the collar of her jacket.
“Nature’s wisdom informs my lack of enthusiasm for vampyre juntas.”
"One day you're going to say that in front of the wrong crowd. You of all people know that it's coming and it doesn’t care for your preferences. Why not make it easy? You may not be blood, but with your skill set I’m sure we can arrange to adopt you.”
A voice came to him as he slowed before an intersection, drifting over the shoulder of a woman remembered as she sat in sunlight on the steps of her house, braiding her own fair hair.
“To bow down is to die by your own hand.” he murmured. Opal rolled her eyes at his disembodied prose.
“Everyone talks that way while they’re alive. Crossing over brings clarity. The Europeans have their own death squads... domestic ones, committed to their program, and they won’t charge six figures to implement it.”
“Darling, I think the winged ones are different. Things like this should always look like a choice. It's lucky those stars on your knees are all in your head."
He pulled up outside her building and watched the doorman grimace to himself as he assisted Opal onto the footpath.
William craned his neck over the back of his banquette and watched his brother walk through a stockade of bouncers. They boasted holsters over their shirts of shiny gold and black, made no effort to pat him down and held the door wide open.
“Fuck. I thought we had another twenty four hours.” he muttered as he sank back into the seat. Luc and Bede commiserated, sipping from the bottles of mescal crowding the little glass table between them; the vessels chimed and clattered, jostled by the girls in dyed fur and flip skirts that had occupied the seats between them. The glitter pasted to their midriff tattoos scintillated as they performed the brief grinding routines suggested by the stimulants hoisting the pitch of their voices. The dance hall filled a narrow slice of defunct warehouse, dimly lit to dampen tensions between the factions of its presiding gang; the floor sagged and creaked where fruit boxes and oil cans propped its underlying structures. Luc leant out around the rump that rolled beneath his chin.
“You think he see us?”
“He see us.” William sighed. “Was the house that bad?" They looked to one another ruefully and downed another round of shots.
Edward lifted his own glass, only to find so little desire for its contents that he set it down and trimmed a cigar with the small guillotine from his pocket. The barman pushed a chrome tray over the counter toward him without attempting conversation. A stab wound troubled him beneath the shoulder of his jacket; though the skin had closed over it on the flight home it darkened a mood poisoned by Opal and then again by the conspicuous party crowding his brother’s booth. He brought a hand to his eyes, using pressure in an attempt to dispel a sound that fluttered in his head like a bird trapped against a pane until the taste in his mouth was transformed from bitterly medicinal to the sunlit sweetness of ripe figs, causing him to stare down at the rejected drink. Inside his skull the plaguing clatter ceased and left an airless silence, swept as though by pinion feathers.
The bouncers held the doors and greeted the incoming party by name in a rare concession to her gender. Lilian walked without undulation or artifice in a dress of black scarf silk to William's table, murmuring to herself impatiently while the pair of spangled exhibitionists atop the tilting glass disentangled and climbed down. He slid over and she accepted the invitation, pushing off the arm he closed around her.
“Frost, there are international anti-blueballing conventions.” William sighed. Luc knocked over his glass in his haste to greet her, taking her hand and imposing a lingering kiss on it.
“Enchanté, mademoiselle... je m’appelle Luc... pardonnez-moi l’expression, but ah... voulez-vous coucher av..”
“Sure. It's three K for forty five minutes. You got a place?” she replied, slapping William’s leg as he made dissuasive gestures at his friend behind her; he smiled and slumped back, eyeing her dress appreciatively. “I boosted it out of the window when I left the store. Meredith’s been riding my ass all week, so fuck that bitch." she chuckled.
“Have you met my cousin?”
She scowled between them briefly, perplexed by their resemblance.
“Is there some kind of secret fucking manga farm out there?”
“It’s more of an island facility.”
“Pleasure.” she told Bede, shaking his hand as she stood.
“You just got here.” William complained.
“I have to rock a piss. Jesus.”
She lifted a thin cigar to her lips and clipped the stub with a small guillotine which she dropped back into her handbag as she looked around. A man in the next booth held out a light for her and she stooped to make use of it, moving off alone toward the back of the club. The short silk fluttered as she walked, depending from a ribbon tied across her shoulders, her hair loosely knotted in a twist. Instead of her stated destination Lilian turned toward a booth occupied by a procurer and his female stable and engaged the former in unsmiling conversation.
Edward’s unblinking gaze made so thorough a notation of her face and body that they persisted when he closed his eyes. The man holding court in her adopted circle was remarkable both for the singularity of his personal pretensions and the violence of the reputation that sheltered them; modestly sized, thickly built and undeniably Anglo-Saxon, he nevertheless affected a bountiful head of chalk-white dreadlocks, a silvered cane and the Iyaric of the local Jamaican gangs, who regarded him with an incredulity he had interpreted as cool approval. He wore a stiff new suit of argent fabric and flashed a grin worldly enough to eclipse his theatrical aspect, unfurling the fingers of one hand in a gesture of demand toward his visitor. Her face held an expression both subtle and impassive, and she replied only after drawing on her cigar and tapping the ash onto the pimp's shoes. He grimaced, shaking his head while the girls beside him shuffled toward the far end of the banquette.
William looked through the crowd for any sign of her and seeing nothing stood to gain a better view. Bede followed his distracted frown toward the bar.
“She's with that fucking douchebag Orb." his host confided as he located them.
"I don’t know... yes... but I don’t like to get in her business.”
“Perhaps someone should...” suggested Bede as Lilian was dragged into a proximity that was obviously repugnant. All suggestion of irony had departed the procurer's attitude; he jerked her onto the couch beside him and locked his arm around her shoulders, the little gems set in his teeth flashing as he detailed her thriftless and disrespectful conduct. Luc examined the scene at Bede’s invitation and allowed the girl in his lap to slide off, pulling himself around the banquette.
“Hey, that’s no good, eh? Je suis partant... we can take him out back and tune him for you...” he offered, dark eyes gleaming with enthusiasm for the prospect. William had already climbed to his feet, but at the far end of the room his brother rose from the bar and approached the devolving encounter himself; Luc pursed his lips and sat back down as though instructed.
Orb smirked at Edward from an expansive slouch.
“Blackheart scientist bring his good taste tonight.” he chuckled. The woman in question sat with one leg over the other and did not look up. He picked up her dress and drew it back over her thigh. “This bitch be everything you see and more.”
Her eyes were refractive of light, converting the scattered brilliance of the glitter ball into a distant turquoise beneath her darkly-beaded lashes. On looking up into his face she suffered a sense of impact that struck like a spike of adrenalin to her chest, flooding it with something that spread and metamorphosed as she breathed, becoming softly, cooly luminous inside her veins. It drowned the music; she leant forward and let her handbag slide onto the floor, regaining command of herself in the time it took to retrieve it. Edward had not looked away from her. The pimp frowned at the aphasic exchange and coughed sharply, tapping his knuckles on the table.
“Inflation babylon.” he declared. “Make it four for I.”
William watched his brother closely in his return toward them.
“Two K.” the latter instructed.
“Two K what?”
“Something’s come up.”
"Never costs me that much to make it go back down again." Edward gazed at him while he craned to check on Lilian. "What the fuck are you doing? Not her." His refusal had little visible impact, though their companions began to glance at one another and examine their billfolds. "I said not her. There's a thousand other girls in here and Frost's the only one who'll charge five fucking K... you're a tightarse, remember?"
“Sachiin... you don’t think she should be paid for this?” Luc urged discreetly as William attempted to confiscate the money from their hands, turning on his brother when his effort failed. Edward met his stare without a word, receiving the sum furnished by his guests while William swore vehemently, forcing them to drag him back down into his seat. "Fuck..." he exclaimed bitterly. "That's it, shaitan’atini... you’re sleeping on the fucking lawn.”
The pimp flipped through the sum Edward provided and stuffed it into his jacket.
“There you go now Mr Lamb... she insured for the medical, so you have one for I.” he urged. She remained in her seat for as long as convention allowed before standing slowly and following him out of the club, walking behind him along the pitted footpath toward the car he had parked in the mouth of an alleyway. Two men, lounging on the bonnet and dragging from a shared glass bulb, propositioned the girls who passed them by and catcalled abuse at their refusals, and Lilian slowed to a halt, looking pointedly across the street. Her client disregarded the tacit warning, aiming an alarm sensor at the sedan she had sought to avoid; while the headlights flashed between their legs, the two miscreants slid from the bonnet and apologized to Edward, polishing the paint work with their sleeves in a gesture of appeasement.
She kept her gaze on the windscreen as they drove, observing the silence he seemed to prefer, moving only to slide her compact from her handbag and inspect her face in the small square of glass. Once clear of the city and out amid the open road they caught a drift of nocturnal rain, its driving patter against the vehicle's exterior drawing a sense of enclosure around her, the sight of his orphean face against the darkness of the window inspiring another bout of the sensation that had struck her at the club. It arced into something recondite and brightly perverse, like the thrill of ice pressed to unguarded skin, and she lay back against the seat with her eyes still on him. When he looked at her in turn she saw the shadowed colour of his gaze and blinked as though mistaken, but he had returned it to the road before she could assure herself of more. It ran on, winding around the hills that revealed with every interminable curve another stretch of high-walled garden, then the neglected, emparked arcadia bounding Commoriom Drive. The rain had thickened into a downpour, the cloudburst chaperoned by an occasional bass remark from the lowering sky. He decelerated along the last stretch of lonely road and pulled to a halt before gates that loomed out of the overgrown wall like a lineated face.
Lilian leant forward and absorbed the imperfect grandeur of the address, glancing down to check her waning phone reception as he drew the iron panels together behind the car. The sound of the bolt turning opened her mouth in an objection she deferred on his return, his dark shape merging with the night behind the driver window. From the porch she preceded him into the gloom of the entrance hall.
"Leave your phones in there." he told her, indicating the kitchen.
"I can turn them off." she offered. When he would not accept the modification she moved to oblige him, remaining alone in the small room and gazing out toward the distant gates. "You're William's brother." Lilian noted, almost cautiously. "You look alike." she added, when he seemed to require an explanation. "There's stuff we need to take care of now. Are you now, or have you ever been an officer of the state or federal police? Are you suffering from any mental illness or defect, and are you currently taking medication for any medical condition?”
“No.” he replied, eventually. The elderly refrigerator whirred into life behind her, and she stepped forward from it in a start she smoothed with an approach to the door. He directed her with an almost imperceptible retreat toward the stairs, their structure buried in shadow at the far end of the passage.
Walking before him through the uncatalogued exotica, she felt her shoulders draw back under the gaze he indulged from a distance determined solely by his discretion; he turned her from the head of the stairs toward the west with another shift in his position. Waiting by the door to his suite, she watched the keys slide through his fingers until they discovered the appertaining shape. Mysore sandalwood formed the pliant rachis of her perfume though she also wore the stainless scent of vodka and the warmer elements of unease.
His private rooms held an atmosphere at once restrained and curiously replete. Twin chests stood tall on long legs, so scarred and ancient that they had lost most of their storm-cloud lacquer to historical vicissitude; at their feet began a stretch of sombre muqori kilims, scarlet amulet motifs burning hotly amid the ink and mulberry like something spat in the face of an enemy, spells chanted in the darkness of the weave. From the ceiling hung a shallow bowl of alabaster that cast a nodding pearl glow over a bed draped simply in old trade silk, as though lifted from a sea of madder-drenched lustre. He slid his jacket from an arm and lay it on the carver chair that formed the only other furnishing. Its slender proportions emphasized the scale that he managed so carefully, Lilian having perceived it only as he had been framed by a doorway that barely contained him. The prospect of his body excited an anticipation immediately darkened by the knowledge that the tasteful and undemonstrative was so often worn as camouflage; with nothing of his brother in his expression, she found herself left with little else and saw that he had fallen to watching her in turn, as though from the edge of a forest.
"Lilian..." she confided from beside the bed, eschewing her customary nom de guerre. He did not reciprocate. “He says you paint. No self portraits?”
Edward refused the question with a glance. It prompted her to look for elements that might have supported the disinclination but nothing volunteered, absence like a cypher in the strange prose of his features. He did not assume they pleased her, though they did, against all prejudice. Looking down at the counterpane she saw a shape in handworked gold, commencing at one corner in little tendrils and growing as though through summer into a vine that put forth beasts instead of blossom, supporting canine and equine and avian shapes in its random excursions. She followed it toward the centre of the selvage where the embroidery ceased with curious abruptness, in the very midst of a deer bereft of its elegant hindquarters. Closing her eyes, she was visited by the cold slide of the silk against her naked back, then recalled by his tacit observance and drew the corners of her mouth into a slight, though mirthless smirk.
“So... what’s your flavour?" she inquired.
"Just tell me what you won't do."
“No minors, no cannulas, no hobbles. If you've got someone else in mind, I got a place in town for that... out here, it's one on one, and I'm hard on all that. No GFE, bareback for double, edgeplay okay... usually I Dom, but I will sub for double. Roleplay... old school, maid, bitch, rubber, mother... five K means I like whatever you like, however many times you want to get there.” The glassy, counterfeit assurance troubled neither of them, but she went on to shake her head. “If you picked me up because you weren’t down with the pimp hand, I appreciate that, but he’s just pissed he owes m..."
"I didn't." Edward assured her.
She looked to him again, conveying her discomfort, and he glanced toward the door, allowing her to once more precede him.
Rain streaked the windows of the studio while he switched on the one light that had been wired in, revealing a high ceiling that loomed like a void awaiting divine attention. She walked to the far end of the enormous chamber and stood before his unfinished works, their shapes hooded in long cowls of priestly white. Edward surveyed the night outside as though with some obscure purpose; when she looked back to him cold rose despite all known laws under her feet and twined about her, pooling in the pit of her stomach as though she had swallowed water from a winter well, shifting when she moved from one heel to the other. She knew it for a portent, another of the signs that had always served her, limning the snares and deadfalls laid out by the patient, vicious doyens concealed amongst her clientele. A small Georgian sofa clothed in black wreath-patterned brocade stood between them; he made his way to it alone. The hall awaited her through half-open doors, but she could not walk herself toward them.
“Take off your dress.” he instructed.
Her hand was cold on her own neck as she reached back to loose the knot from which the gown suspended, letting it fall to the floor and standing in nothing but her own skin, fair and fine as ṣūf al-baḥr. He spared neither any modesty she might have cherished nor any portion of her in his survey, taking his time to consider her details.
"Shoes." he added.
Her body changed as she stepped down, shedding something of its hauteur. Long and lightly-fleshed, it possessed a cache of explicit endowments, from the mirrored shapes of collarbones and the pale half-moon shadows beneath her breasts to the shallow curve climbing the backs of her thighs. She lifted her hands again to loose her hair but he shook his head, and she desisted, letting her arms fall. An old habit had left its pointillistic signature on their inner faces, faded almost to invisibility.
"Come here." he told her. Misgivings slowed her compliance, but he was patient. "Turn around."
Once more without the sight of him, the thought of his hands on her body grew into uncertainty that he had not already touched her, the small of her back insisting on it. His silence closed her eyes and rendered her skin an infinitely conducive medium over which anticipation wandered in its own sadistic time. She heard him stand, but with the light before them, he cast no shadow on the ground. Rain harried the window glass and pounded on the slope of the roof.
“I want a word." she murmured. “A safe word. I don’t go without one.”
“Yes, and no." he replied. "I know both."
He slid the knuckles of one hand down the slope of her nape, tasting her skin first with his fingers, the pale honeyed notes that rose with the warmth from her shoulder imposing on every cord of his restraint. One hand descended the shallow vale of her spine while the other rounded her hip, brushing the inside of her wrist as it rose, finding her throat then descending once more under its own weight. It opened at her navel and drew her back against him, deposing her balance until she conceded it, the loss a breathless, narcotic charge as he took her down onto the sofa with him.
From her midst his hand slid into the slender recess between her legs. Her bare foot twisted on the floor beside his own, founding an arc describing the sensation coursing from his hand along her spine into her chest. At such tangental pleasure her body tightened and rescinded, unable to assign itself outside bounds so scored by affected repetition; she suffered the constraint alone until he murmured a consoling word, and lay a hand over her eyes.
"Yes, or no." he asked softly.
She turned her face against his neck and lay still. Reconciled to darkness, she drew breath in concert with his own until its tranquil meter moved her to invite him further. He eased a hand beneath her knee, laying it over the padded arm beside them and returning to trace the tender, cursive shapes between her thighs. In them he found such secret depths that she tasted the sweetness of the dark act in her mouth and felt it pounding with her blood along its buried orbit as he brought her to a conclusion that cut cleanly through constraint, leaving her inert, blurring the ceiling and dropping it toward her. In that darkness the sound of rain became that of snow passing through leafless boughs, settling in her hair and on her cheeks, melting on her thighs where he had thrown her heavy skirts against the white ground. She sought his skin beneath the weary blue that clothed him, hands passing over the figures on his back, the dark lines cut in low, coded relief.
Lilian let the walls return in her own time, and he did not move until they did, setting her down onto the boards. She made room for him between her legs to stand and shed his clothing as though he would not need it again; on his knees he set his hands on either side of her, and as his mouth passed from her breasts over her throat, she drew her palms across his shoulders, each one carrying the flourishes of a much larger work, the dark lines cut in low, coded relief.
Something clattered against the windowpane as Susan walked into her bedroom with a towel around her head; the sound recurred, and she heard her last name called from without. Tying her robe, she crawled across the bed and drew the curtain, only to shriek at the sight of William pressed against the glass.
"What are you doing?" she cried, shrinking back onto her heels. He stood on the inch-wide ledge of oak dividing the plaster wall outside. "Get off there, you absolute plonker!"
"I'm afraid of lows." he confessed, grasping the window frame and leaning back to allow her a better view. Two floors below, the decrepit scooter she had spied upon arrival was parked in the shade of the elm, roughly polished, its tyres restored. "C'est pour toi."
"You're joking?" He shook his head, wide-eyed; she yanked back the curtain and swarmed into her clothing, hurrying down to find him kicking the little motor into life. A blue mass of evil-smelling fumes flew from the exhaust and he revved it mercilessly, spinning a donut into the grass around his leg. “I thought it was well dead!” she laughed, shouting over the backfire and waving away the smoke. “Did you fix it?”
“Er, no. I killed it the first time. I made Luc and Étienne put it back together before they left.”
"Have they gone now?" she demanded cautiously. William laughed and nodded in time with his torture of the accelerator.
“You said you didn’t have a ride... now you do.” he added. “Avec amour, de deux saloperies françaises,” She stared at the scooter, delighted, and he got up, stepping aside for her. Susan took command of it eagerly.
“Come on..." she insisted, smiling back at him. "We’ll keep it pointing downhill.”
The chassis groaned beneath him as he seated himself decorously; nicety dissipated, however, in the smoky violence of their launch, and he clapped his hands over her eyes as they gained speed over the sloping lawn.
“William!” she cried, lead wheel wobbling furiously.
“Mr Lamb!” he laughed. In retaliation, she threw the bike into a hazardous turn over the long slope of the parterre and he leapt from the seat, dashing across the arc her route described and slumping down behind her. She lifted her elbows so he could pass his hands around her waist and shook her damp hair out of her eyes, the breeze sweeping it back into his face. Their velocity over the slippery grass almost wrenched control from her and he put out both feet to steady them; they flew briefly over a small depression, the idling peacock scolding and flapping away in panic, its feathered cohorts dashing in three directions. As they sped toward the trees the motor spluttered, buzzed on for a moment like a large bee in a jar, then died, leaving them to coast toward the shade.
“Ohhh...” she sighed, putting out her bottom lip. They rolled to a halt. “Is it dead?”
"M-o-r-t." William reported gloomily while she worked the controls in vain and pulled them up beside a cedar. In their becalmed proximity he sat with arms still around her; the seat creaked as she glanced over her shoulder at him, rolling her eyes when he ignored the polite cue and remained as he was, enjoying the warmth of her back and the apple scent of her shampoo, touching his nose to her hair. She flushed, whispering a low, insincere complaint at the descent of his hands to her knees, reaching down for his wrists and keeping hold of them while she formed the resolve to remove them. “Actually, there was something I wanted to show you, but you’ll have to come into the woods to see it.” he smiled. She chuckled and swung a leg free from the bike.
“I’ve seen things like that before.”
“Are you sure? I think this one has your name on it...” Susan laughed, tucking her hair behind her ears as she began walking back without him. "Oh, so now it's my bike." he complained.
William trundled the scooter around the side of the house and across the front lawn toward the garage, watching her wander ahead with a ragged rugosa bloom to her nose until she turned with a smile behind her hand and hurried back to him.
“Look... walk of shame.” she whispered.
At the end of the driveway Edward stood in conversation with a fair-haired woman in a plain black dress, the stranger carrying her stilettos in one hand to preserve them from the cobblestones. They walked on toward the gates; as Edward parted them, the woman lifted her face to his and kissed his mouth in such a sudden and deeply explicit manner that Susan exclaimed to herself and looked away from them, directing a puzzled frown to her companion.
“I had no idea your brother had a girlfriend.”
Still staring at the distant pair, William dropped the handlebars and let the bike fall into the grass. The union of their familiar shapes tore scales from his eyes and raised both hands to them, and he spoke to himself in his own language with a vehemence of which she scarcely thought him capable.
“Do you know her?” she asked, alarmed. He shook his head as though replying in the negative.
“Yes, I do." he breathed, still struggling with it. "I know her.”
Over by the gates a taxi wheeled around and pulled up to a halt. Edward waited while Lilian instructed the driver and then returned alone toward the house, centered in his thoughts until his brother’s unremitting stare became a physical imposition. He looked up to meet it, walking on into the porch without addressing either of them.
The inability to sleep had seldom troubled Susan in her homeland, but the nights on the far side of the dividing ocean were a landscape she had not learned to negotiate, inspiring restive phases blotted only by determined perfunction. The house connived in this uncomfortable cycle with its isolation and embarrassment of domestic opportunities. She leant against the door to the garage, cursing the darkness and peering blindly through vehicles that crouched like hibernating megafauna and chests and packing crates that shifted as though malevolently sentient. With her clothes basket propped on her head she stumbled between them toward the laundry, where she groped along a shelf crowded with paint tins and oily, disused tools for her torch, standing it on the defunct mangle and beaming its ringed light toward the ceiling. Through the narrow little window and its frame of overgrown roses the garden lay, a nocturnal eden crowded with all the archetypal trees of earth, their branches hung with leaves of shining black and silver, motionless and silent but for the crickets that sang their washboard song in the grass beneath the sill.
Susan sorted the hump of clothing with her feet and muttered at William’s ability to work so quickly through his endless wardrobe. In the light spilt from the doorway she spotted garments bundled in plastic between the wall and Edward’s vehicle, and dragged them into the laundry, wrinkling her nose.
“You can wait.” she promised, stuffing her own clothes into the machine and fighting the antiquated dial. When it refused her, she entered into a similar battle with the dusty radio; reports of a serial killer on the other side of the country prompted her onward through the bandwidth, too late to avert an ambush by her own recollected dead. The grimacing lich of an overdosed friend, lying soaked in its own rancid sweat and the waxen-shiny faces of her parents in their matching caskets answered a summons she had never learned to predict, leaving her to plough back into her task, using a garden stake to stuff a heavy kilt stained with alcohol into a bucket of water. A livid prickling crossed her shoulders as she did so, an almost chemical reaction to something decanting through the glass behind her, the pane morphing from passive aperture into a black and staring eye; Susan was careful to keep her gaze from it, turning the taps beneath without looking up until the suggestion faded.
The black jersey she extracted from the bag of Edward’s clothing intensified her frown, something dark stiffening the fabric across the chest and upper third of its sleeves. Having plunged it into the tub Susan watched the water flush dull red around her wrists, liberating first the colour and then the dirty, curling smell of stale blood. Whipping her hands from it, she stood with them dripping alongside her, fishing out the garment with the stick when she had recovered. An inspection of the pile conducted with a sleeve pressed to her mouth revealed no other suspect garments but extinguished all further interest in the work, the impulse to decamp curtailed only by an intruding sound, a soft, peripheral rustle so faint that she had to remain completely still to hear it.
The night gazed in through the window once more, the crickets ceasing their rasping song at the foot of the wall outside. She closed her eyes. The almost heedful noise crept in again, little more than rustling until its whispering qualities grew too pronounced, becoming a hiss, which mounted slowly into a moaning snarl, then further, forming chewed and thickly garbled words in a voice like a saw blade dragged through dead wood. Fright flew at her; she lurched backward toward the yawning darkness of the garage, where the small door beside the vehicular entrance stood ajar, outlined in orange by the distant street lamp. Behind her, the scurling voice had fallen silent and through the half-greened glass the rose canes swayed faintly and settled.
She fled, groping through the cavernous blackness and bowling into unseen debris, leaving it scattered in her wake as she leapt up into the hallway, spinning around to clap the door shut and foisting the heavy bolt into the plate. As her breathing slowed discomfort told her of the key stamped into her palm by her fingers, and while she shook her hand the dull silver bar before her shifted in the light admitted by the front door panes, tilting briefly, then returning to the horizontal. Before she could question herself the handle moved again, the old spring grinding until it pointed almost at the floor, the orange eye of light inside the keyhole flickering blackly.
Susan scurried backward into the kitchen, dashing to the windows to drag the gingham curtains closed and wiping her hand over the switches on the wall. Her arms shook as she retreated into the corner beside the chrome-trimmed bulk of the refrigerator, where she stepped down onto a broom and knocked its handle into her back. Dropping her face into her hands, she swore again and forced herself to remain in the middle of the room until she could summon the courage to look again toward the hall door. Its handle sat in a passive neutrality that admonished her retreat; nothing further issued from the garage and she shook her head, standing with hands on hips until relief matured into a rueful skepticism and prompted her to cast about for a distraction. A glance toward the cupboards reminded her of the preserving jars in their forgotten compartments. They clinked together musically as she heaved the shallow box onto the counter, encountering the nettling smell of pickling spices and a sticky hint of christmas fruit.
Susan's eyes closed with the immersion of her arms into the sink between the glass that rolled beneath the perfumed suds. Rainbow-painted bubbles slid down the walls of each jar she set on the counter; it was on the curve of the last that she saw another collection of colours reflected.
"Fucking hell!" she cried, a wave of suds slopping onto the linoleum at the sight of the figure seated at the table, wearing striped pyjama pants. “Why don’t you make a bloody noise like a normal person?”
“You told me not to at three in the morning.” William reminded her, sipping from a bottle of vodka.
"Was that you out there just now?" His vacant expression replied in the negative. "There was someone in the garage..." Susan insisted, nodding toward it. He glanced about himself, twisting the handle from the broom and rolling it over his knuckles as he walked into the hall where she heard him unlock the door, shaking his head as he returned. “I'm going mad, then." she sighed. "What are you doing down here?”
“If I knew, I’d say. What're you doing?”
She frowned, tugging a tea towel from its hook and polishing the jars.
“Mystery jam.” she conceded, nodding to the bowl of velvet-black cane fruit she had pulled from the refrigerator. “They were in the garden. I wouldn’t do that...” she added as he put one in his mouth. “You've got to check them for grubs.” William ate another, examining the ingredients she had assembled; the bright scent of the lemon was a ballistic sensation in his nose as he squeezed its waxy skin. “Can’t sleep?”
“Can’t sleep, can’t stay awake... can’t lie down... don’t want to stand up.”
“Can I get you anything?”
He let his head roll sideways.
“Novacaine... don’t suppose you’ve got any on you... er... no. You’ve got blood, though... on you...”
She looked down at the stain left by the laundry water across her apron and dragged the garment over her head as though it were aflame. Her distress was made all the more poignant by her flannel nightgown and disordered hair, and it struck him that little more than two decades had passed since her induction to a world that he himself had barely begun to grasp. Her haunting youth prompted him to tug a little plastic bottle from his pocket and tip a handful of capsules down his throat; he drunk from the tap while she stared in an amended horror.
“William, if you’re going to do that, could you please go outside to die, because I don’t want to find your body in the house.”
“It’s only Demerol, and I'm not lactating... What’s that?” he asked; she turned, but looked back in time to see the lemon poised between his teeth. At her demand he returned it to her hand and stood, face brightened by her censure. “Mystery jam requires a lovely assistant.” he insisted, the peculiar euphony of the assurance prompting her to pull them both a fresh apron from the drawer.
“You have to check them for grubs.” she instructed, setting the fruit before him. He lifted the berries to his nose.
"Check them." He did so in a faineant manner, then noticed her look of inquiry.
"Hit me." he suggested.
"It's personal." she warned.
"I think I'm still wondering what you're doing here, exactly... in this house."
He inspected the berries between thumb and forefinger.
"Don't you like it?"
"The house? Yes, actually, when it's not giving me a heart attack. It reminds me of camping." Susan looked up to qualify the admission. "Primitive post-apocalyptic camping. But I asked you..."
"For what?" She nodded toward the cupboard before him. "Vanilla essence... little brown bottle.” The tiny vessel he handed her retained only a shallow fraction of its highly-flavoured tincture. “I just bought this!” she complained, her suspicion degrading the irreproachability of his pale features.
“It tastes pretty.” William confessed, sitting the lemon on his thumbnail and catapulting it toward his left hand, where it landed and sat, after a moment of correction, upon the tip of his index finger. She slapped a bag of sugar onto the counter.
"Waiting for what?"
"For my brother. To get better."
"I hope you brought a book to read or something." The lemon flew again between his hands; she smiled and glanced into the bowl of fruit. “Finish looking through those, then measure out... I think it’s the same weight of sugar...”
“Why are you roasting the glass?”
“Did you not do this at school?” The last word suffered unwitting emphasis as she grabbed at the yellow fruit in mid-saltation. "You have to sterilize them. Stop doing that." she laughed while William flipped the lemon over her head, offering it to her with a smile and watching her attempt the feat herself. It rolled hopelessly from her fingertip; he found a carving knife and used the heavy blade to lop one end of the fruit into his hand. "How do you still have fingers?" she exclaimed, grinning as the alteration allowed her a moment of success. He shrugged.
"They grow back."
By the time she had finished loading the glass into the oven he had completed his chores and tipped the purple-staining fruit into the huge pot she had selected, adding the requisite water without instruction. Their flat, murky scent rose with the heat of the element; William pushed the measure of frost-white sugar toward her, unscrewed the cap from the essence bottle and held it poised over the glittering pyramid, eyes returning to her before tapping six caramel drops around its apex.
“What do you do with this?” he asked of the erstwhile lemon.
“That goes in too.” Susan caught his arm before he could drop it whole into the pot. “The juice. You’ll need a...” He halved it and both portions yielded their acidulating pulp from either of his fists. Standing to one side of the range, she nodded to his offer of the sugar; he watched the wine-dark liquor metamorphose into something far more alluring than the sum of its homely parts.
“But jam is... what’s the word? Épais… er, collant?”
“When it sticks to the back of the spoon, it’s ready.” The explanation did not satisfy him and he leant against the counter in an attitude of loose dubiety.
"Which words do you use?"
"How do you mean?"
“To make it change. What do you say?”
She shook her head at the sincerity of the inquiry.
“What, like... magic?" He frowned slightly at her grin. "It’s not the middle bloody ages... it's the heat. It does something to the pectin. You know... science?”
“Magic is a science.”
“Yes... I’m sure the Demerol fairies seem quite realistic at times, especially when they get together with the Absolut trolls.” she murmured dryly, to which he sucked in a sharp breath.
“Christabel... you’re critiquing my drug use like you give a damn.”
"Well, I don't really fancy dragging your enormous corpse all the way to the green waste bin. Does no one else say anything? Look... it's setting now. I need the jars out.” Her hands flew to her face when he stooped to lift the smoking vessels from the oven with his naked fingers and arranged them on the stainless steel; her horror caused him to glance up from the process, if not to abandon it. “Don't pour it yet, you’re supposed to wait five minutes or all the fruit floats to the top.”
William received the caveat with dismay and stood as though subject to some indictment against all movement; she followed his gaze as it travelled slowly from the pot to her face and back again, a process repeated three times before she relented. He apportioned the dark emulsion and screwed on the lids with no more concern for their temperature than he had previously evinced. The sight of him bending to stare, first at the completed preserves, then in hope of her endorsement renewed her smile.
“Now you wait for the lids to pop.”
Susan was reacquainted with the apron lying on the linoleum as she sat beside the window. He let himself down onto the table and lay before her on his side, elbow sliding as his hand took the weight of his head. She accepted a swig of his vodka while he looked back at her with the kind of unabashed absorption she could not have directed at any conscious object. Whether his opulent felinity was derived from the nature of his features or his confiding manner was something she could not decide; he nodded at the apron.
“What were you saying about cutting someone up and rolling in their blood? We’ll tell the cops it was an accident...”
“It’s from your brother’s clothes."
He shrugged one shoulder.
"I can't lie. He had it coming."
"I found them by the car and thought they wanted doing.” She sighed. “God... that is blood, isn’t it? I had my hands right in it.”
“It's his art... it's going through an emo splatter phase... he's not happy til everything looks like a Manson family baby shower. Wouldn't surprise me if he'd drained a fucking deer to get the texture right.” Being able to discount her worst suspicion proved attractive, and she nodded as she set her chin on her fists.
“Whatever it is, it’s in the laundry and it’s minging and I’m not paid enough to touch it. What’s got you out of bed at three in the morning?”
"Christabel, don't get me started..." he groaned, rolling onto his back. “It’s one of those things... you know, a Japanese movie thing. You can’t tell anyone because they’ll think you’re methylated or batshit, but every time you open the door and have another look it's worse... it's growing tentacles and coming after you and there's nothing you can do...”
"I don't know why you're worried about your English. It's perfectly alright."
"You think? Ed keeps telling me it's fucked..." His smile returned one to her own face.
"You were saying..."
“You go first.” he urged.
“How’s this for paranoia, then? I think someone’s hanging round the house at night... that's what I was freaking out about before. I was out there doing the washing, and I swear there was someone at the window... I heard this horrible voice, like... speaking in tongues...” The recollection trailed coldly over her skin. William rolled to sit at the edge of the table. “It was hideous. Like... a possessed person talking to themselves.”
"Okay..." he nodded. "We'll keep everything locked down from now on."
"Really? I was hoping you'd tell me I was a nutter." she confessed, to which he slid a hand under her forearm, demonstrating the tremor that had returned to it.
"That's not paranoia, cloudcheeks." She smiled at the endearment. "Always trust the flesh. But don't worry too fucking much... it's probably Rachelle."
"It's not your brother and that girl that's bothering you, is it? Who is she?"
"Are they together?"
"She's a whore."
"Oh... oh... um... so they're..."
William shook his head gravely.
"C'est trop dur compliqué. Let's get back to you, Susan Ellen Christabel." he muttered, gazing down at her feet. "Look at the slippers... you could be anyone. How did you even get here? Are they wing'd rabbits?"
"I'm not telling you. It's stupid."
"Stupid is my special thing."
"Stupid and boring."
"Well I'm sitting here fapping to the thought of fucking jam lids popping so whatever else you've got for me is good."
"Oh god, alright... my mate's boyfriend had a maisonette in Hoxton, she was moving in and they needed flatmates. I went down the shops to get a toaster, and it had one of those stupid 'win a holiday' things on it... I don't usually bother, but everyone said yeah do it, so I did... and a month later I actually won a holiday. I brought my mate Jules... we got two weeks at the Peninsula and two grand spending." Susan laughed to herself. "Most of that went on the bloody minibar, and then it was time to go back, and I just... I didn't want to, so I stayed on. Jules was well pissed off. She went back in a strop and I haven't heard from her since."
"I au paired for a while in town, but that was fucking horrible... then I got bar work, and everyone told me you couldn't get anything decent without an agency, so... I got an agency."
"Shit, that's right... you're still with Opal..."
"Do you know her?"
“Yeah, I know that chupa hag... she’s Ed’s agent.”
“Anyway, I can’t afford a flat on my muppet wages, I’m paying off one bloody credit card with the other and I’m stuck with this stupid agency now, and I owe them fees... she keeps asking for my passport too, the dodgy cow.”
"Don't give her your papers, Christabel."
"I'm not that stupid. Just stupid enough to let her know I'm an overstayer."
"I'll talk to Ed about it. Hey..." he added, pushing the bottle toward her. "I did that thing with the phone... turning it off. It's fucking great."
"I'm very happy for you." she mused.
Susan watched him slide from the table again to inspect the jars. As he bent down a grotesque circumstance revealed itself in the form of a pearl-coloured scar, half an inch thick and wandering down under his dorsal tattoo, distorting it slightly as he bent over. Along the line the two halves of the black design had been reinstated carefully; the scar began on his left shoulder and descended beneath his singlet, surfacing in a broad loop on his hip. She raised a hand to her mouth, appalled.
“What happened to you?” The tactless nature of the question rang in her own ears. William turned back to her. "Sorry...” she sighed, embarrassed.
“Don't worry... it’s gross, I know.” he admitted.
“Were you... was it a car accident?" The notion gelled with certain other of her impressions and seemed suddenly, abashingly apposite.
“Er, no. An argument.” he replied. His gaze shifted in the glare of the florescent bar, and she noticed that he rarely blinked; William turned toward the cupboards as though for something in particular but his hands betrayed the aimless nature of his discomfort. Behind the curtains the darkness pressed its blank face to the window once more.
“That's so horrible... I don’t know how you can just hack someone with a knife...”
“Well... there are different ways of looking at it.” He returned to the table and swung his legs from the edge. “I was thinking the other day, because it’s, you know... supposed to stop you getting dementia... and I thunked that violence isn’t really weird."
"Yes it is. It's hideous."
"But think of it like this... if you had to come up with five things you’d never do, under any circumstances... violence isn't one of them, is it?" he inquired of her. "Five things... I got to one and a half, and fell asleep, exhausted. You just have to be be... philosophical. Fuck commandments." William handed her a cigarette and lifted the bottle to his lips, voice echoing down into its empty space as he continued along the tangent. "I hate organized religion... I do sort of miss shame, though... it was quite funny sometimes... people getting all fucked up about stupid shit. But then you always get the ones who want to overdo everything, and everyone starts jailing cats and coveting thy neighbour's homosexuals..."
She blinked slowly in the pall of weariness that had descended with the lulling influence of his voice.
"How can you miss shame?"
"I said..." Susan yawned into her hand. "How can you miss shame? You weren't even born." They both started as a lid popped loudly. Rubbing at an eye with one hand she yawned again into the other. “Don't say anything to your brother about the creeping... I don’t want to have to talk about night stalkers to someone who comes home covered in blood.” she confessed dourly, hauling herself from the chair. “Thanks for helping with the jam.”
"Who knew it was that easy to make fruit your bitch?" he smiled. "You alright, Christabel?"
She stood in the doorway and shrugged.
"I suppose so. Are you?"
He listened to her ascend the stairs and drank long after she was gone, thoughts descending from deep green and into black as he pushed back the curtains and stared out into the night. Nothing stirred without except an owl, clapping its beak at a roosting neighbour disturbed by the light from Susan’s window.
* Read the next Chapter *