J A G U A R
Mottled lilac shade lay on the balcony outside the studio, to which Edward carried the sofa, settling to scan the pages of his broadsheet. Green tea darkened in the bowl beside him, its new-mown scent rising with the steam. Bede and William brought the smell of horses, sweat and human blood into the house on their return; they entered the studio together in pale uniforms stained with mud and saddle dirt, barred helmets hanging from their arms.
“We won, but I think Sachiin’s throwing in the towel for the rest of the season.” Bede reported. William dumped his helmet on the ground and sat against the railing, leaning over his legs to light a cigarette. "I do think he was treated somewhat unfairly."
"Endured with quiet dignity, I'm sure." Edward muttered from behind his paper.
“Flagged three times for fucking nothing... some bullshit riding off and accidental hooking.” William hissed through the smoke. “What a fucking shower of bastards. I offered to blow them all in front of three hundred people, so it’s not like I could have backed out... ce sont des foutaises.”
Bede glanced at Edward then looked away into the studio, uncomfortably aware of his unblinking golden scrutiny.
"Kala'amātya, we are truly sorry about your car. We did put a new battery in and have it valeted..." he began, conscious that it was by no means the subject of the latter's considerations. "There is something I should have mentioned to you earlier...” Edward demanded an end to the prevarication with his stare. “I believe we’re being observed. By... I think by governmentals."
His host returned to scanning the property commentary. A trio of swallows chased one another into the studio, their shrill little cries echoing as they looped about the empty chamber.
“I told you he knew.” William snorted. He unstrapped his boots and kicked them off, freeing his long, clawed toes from the pinching leather and flexing them slowly. Edward poured himself another bowl of tea.
“How was Europe, Avi'ashān?” he asked, to which their guest shrugged.
“Enormously crowded... hideously so. I don’t think we’ll go to Italy again during the season. We ran into Mr Auberjonois in Herculaneum... he sends his amities... seems in preposterous health. Naples... horrible... stick your fingers in your ears and Venice is still worth looking at, though it smells more like a colostomy bag than il mare these days. And there is only so much you can take of being followed and prodded and breathed on." Bede related. "In all honesty Kala'amātya, if you can sit here knowing you’re being papped by a military industrial complex, I can only take my hat off to you."
Edward closed his broadsheet in order to remove the notional barrier it provided.
“The political situation?”
“Not the rosiest of pictures. The deceased do seem to have become attached to the idea that they should enjoy exclusive dominion, but I’m not sure coming between the Baillis and his sense of manifest destiny is something many are very enthusiastic about."
"Wow, you're shitting me." William droned.
"I have to concur, Sachiin. Are most demagogues not subdued in, if not by, the fullness of time? I think that while it may be uncomfortable, the majority are content to await the workings of karma.”
"While they still cherish the thought of personal impunity." Edward replied.
The sound of a car door slammed into its framing, then the hyphenated syllables of William's name came rolling over the roof toward them, Rachelle's customary exigence tempered by some new vein of constraint that kept her from physically consummating the intrusion; her object turned toward his brother.
"I discouraged her myself, since you are manifestly incapable." the latter assured him. On the grass by the edge of the swimming pool a blackbird seized the end of a worm and began to tear the luckless annelid from the earth. Bede leant over the railing, staring down at the breeze-troubled grass. “Where is Nyāti?” Edward demanded of him as the blackbird tipped back its head to gulp down the prize.
“Shopping somewhere, I believe.”
“She'll come here?”
“I'm not entirely sure." He seemed to have at last satisfied Edward’s obscure line of enquiry.
“Nyāti discovers retail therapy, accommodates your extramarital ventures and has no firm plans for either of you...” Without another word the latter rose from his seat and kicked his guest’s legs out from under him with such brutal swiftness that Bede found himself pinned to the floor of the balcony before he could utter a syllable of protest. Producing a small, stout blade, Edward stabbed it into the back of his calf while William sprang to his feet, abandoning English in the heat of the moment; his brother replied in kind. “Speak, Avi'ashān, while you have the tongue for it.” He twisted the knife sideways.
Susan scowled as she negotiated the stairs, pausing to lean over the balustrade and assure herself that their visitor had remained in the porch as per her own insistence. At first she thought the unmistakable contention in the voices that echoed toward her responsible for their confusion, but as she approached the studio it became apparent that the barrier was linguistic. As her fingers closed on the door the argument ceased, replaced by a silence that she entered into warily. William and Bede stood with their backs to the railing, wearing some sort of sporting uniform and an expression of dour neutrality.
“Mr Lamb, there’s someone downstairs for you... it's um, Rachelle. Should I show her up?” Her cheeks and a small stripe at the base of her throat were coloured by the pervading atmosphere. William's gaze fell to her mouth.
"Er... negative. Tell her... tell her I’m on a retreat and there’s a no-contact policy. I’m somewhere far, far away, polishing my shortcomings and I won’t be back for... two weeks. A month.”
“She knows you're here. Is that really what you want me to say?”
“It’s a story..." His face brightened again. "Think it needs some horny trolls?”
She regarded him unsparingly, having already been subjected to Rachelle’s unreasoned demands.
“Mr Lamb, I think it’s probably best if that comes from you.”
“Cristabel... I’ve just been kicked off my polo team... have a heart."
Susan folded her arms.
“William, it’s not that I mind telling her to go away, because I don't, and you're right, she really is a nutter... but I’d like to be able to say go away, rather than just try again.”
Her advice struck down his wistful appeal and he stood abashed, blinking as though in mazing sunlight while Edward rose from the obscurity of the sofa, his presence surprising Susan greatly; she started backward.
"I'll tell her you're here but you don't want to see her. Is that alright?" she proposed, scowling in her eagerness to conclude the matter. He smiled again, and brought his hands together in a gesture of gratitude, from which she turned in her impatience.
“Christabel...” he called after her. "Merci beaucoup."
He waited until she had descended the stairs before turning his cousin around and examining the blade still buried in his calf.
"What the fuck?" he demanded of them both.
“Never mind.” Bede murmured. Shaking his head, William set a foot against his flesh and whipped the handle backward, tossing it at his brother.
"B, if you're sitting on something, you'd better fucking whip it out now..."
“On that note, I think I’ll go. Guests and fish and three days, etc.” Bede sighed. William murmured in his dejection and kicked a fragment of roof tile from the balcony.
“Well, fuck off back to Venice, then. Don’t worry about us... looks like we’re just going to be sitting here getting swabbed by Black Op windowlickers." He pressed his hands to his face melodramatically. "And Ny's going to fuck you up when she finds out you’re playing away with Fred... so good luck.”
“I don’t want to push our luck with our old papers...” Bede ventured.
“He jacks off over anything in triplicate so passports shouldn't be a problem.” William declared of his brother with a bitter flourish. A distant thud was followed by a brittle, cacophonous crash from somewhere in the building and he murmured to himself, craning from the balcony then climbing up onto the sagging copper gutter from the balustrade. He used it to gain the roof, tiles sloughing away under his feet and skittering from the eaves as he strode toward the yawning hole that had opened over his rooms. It had strewn the boards beside his bed with plaster, shattered tiles and rotten timbers; in his absence Edward turned a brutal glance to Bede, as though he had not yet satisfied the knife.
"Sis'thle bai'in." he said, the farewell transformed into directive.
Bede left the balcony on a slight limp before William returned.
"Ever since I've been here I've been telling everyone... come round, don't be scared, I made him dump the chest freezers... but hey, keep stabbing random fucking people.” Receiving no response, he addressed a curse to the air around them. “At least you’re making Susan feel like family. She’s already wondering how you end up with three pints of blood in your laundry basket.”
“If she’s asking questions now, how do you propose to fuck her without incurring more?” Edward inquired.
"She's someone to talk to at three in the morning who’s not evil or crazy.”
His brother smiled ominously, revealing his pointed teeth while William struggled with his anger before it betrayed him further. The effort was in vain, and Edward expressed a low, sere sound as he walked into the studio.
“Now I’ll have to take her to dinner.”
“Just leave her alone... you’re the one dropping us in the forensic shit."
"If she found something it's because she was prying, so now she's on the table."
"For fuck's sake... she said to me once that she thinks someone's creeping round at night... the AIU are up there so it's probably them.”
“I don’t doubt she suffers a tangible sense of foreboding.” Edward replied. He stood before his largest canvas and inspected the cracks in the paint.
“Escape from bastard island, Kala'amātya... come toward the light. We have monogrammed robes over here too." Another tile fell inward from the perforated roof, clattering distantly onto his bedroom floor. "What we need around here is more eyes... if you’re away and I’m somewhere else, this place is just waiting to get tossed. Hire a guard or something.”
Murmuring to himself, William deplored each of the assembled works in turn, grimacing at the remorseless smears of magenta and cobalt, applied with a knife over both black and white grounds and cured like the crusting of a sun-dried wound by the passage of a blow torch.
“I know this is bearding for your dayjob, but someone's going to get that you kill people for money if they look at this shit long enough. I’d be digging deeper.” He stepped back from the largest canvas. “Add puce and call it ‘Opal’.”
“Call it whatever you like.”
“You could hit it with some agricultural de... decons... what is it? Deconstructivism? Recontextualize them. Staple chicken feet around the edges as emblems of your private pain, charge double.”
“Stop reading my subscriptions.”
“Eyeballs everywhere are screaming for you to rediscover naked women.”
“Get out of my studio.”
“Art’s just like, you know... alchemy these days, isn’t it?" William continued. "You get all this random crap together and tell people it’s really significant, et baise-moi... stupid fucking white men come five figures, right there in your hand. You don’t even have to stab them. That's fucking tight.” He sat down on the stack of punching bags arranged against the wall, took out his lighter and began flicking the wheel. “I will sub you a dozen top-shelf whores for a lunar month if you leave Lilian alone.” The sound of her name coincided with the terse rasp of the flint; he reverted once more to their native tongue. “She told you she doesn't do GFE, didn’t she? You don't know the first thing about her." If Edward had heard him, he gave no indication, and William shook his head, leaning back as he continued, taking small pleasure in the observations. "She’s got a habit... it's eased up at the moment, but when it’s on, she’s off the fucking reservation. Her regulars are hypersensitive... they will not like you getting her for free. Drug debt... she’s in holes all over town, and that’s before she’s squared up with the po-po. That fucking pimp Orb blew her cop money on jerk chicken and Haitian jailbait, so now she's a POI to every shady badge for fifty clicks, and if I'd brought that kind of heat through the door, you'd kick me to sleep.” He guided the tall flame in his hand to the end of the cigarette. “She’s a total, pathological liar... and if she has feelings, you’ll need a grinder and solvents to get to them. So while you might sound perfect for each other, what I’m trying to say is for the love of god, mahatma... leave her alone. As a favour to me. She doesn’t need you to fuck things up. That’s all taken care of.”
His own hectoring address bounced back to him from the bare walls as haunted echolalia, the words falling like wind-blown ash before a forest fire. William berated himself privately while his brother's disinterested gaze passed over him, seeking a piece of delinquent equipment.
"At least buy out Susan's contract. Rachelle's got a hard on for her and it's only a matter of time before she takes it to Opal."
He left Edward's indifference in the studio and returned to his rooms, kicking the ceiling rubble from the garments it had smothered. Bede had collected his few belongings and conducted himself to the driveway, awaiting the car he had already called, and William walked down alone to keep him company.
A length of garden hose, faded to a chalky red and lying like a sectioned vein, described a long arc from the corner of the house into the shade of the elms, where a sheet of black industrial vinyl hung at head-height from a branch, strung on hemp rope passed through the eyes in the edge of the plastic. Nathaniel Shaw turned his face from it toward the sky, his eyes catching its brilliance on the full through a gap between his face and darkest glasses. He would have liked to blot the sweat beading his forehead with the cloth in his pocket but judged it might dilute the picture of assurance he wished to project. In the distance, the rope creaked with a breeze that did not reach him, water dripping slowly from the corners of the vinyl. Edward Lamb's refulgent features formed an intolerable contrast before its glossy and absolute reserve. Seeming immersed in weighty matters, he was in actuality content with the details confided by the breeze, to watch insects on the lawn and to ignore the distant security guard, who weltered in his own feigned preoccupation. An injured locust blundered through the turf, wiping at its head while a trail of black ants surged en mass over its body, sawing through its mint-green armour and carrying the clipped pieces away.
He waited, impervious to the afternoon that drummed down on the stranger's head, attention divided between the insects and the latter's choreography as the man began a measured approach. Tall, closely-shaven and well-dressed, he stood in a pale grey suit that rode the uneasy line between daywear and formality with some success. The deletion of his gaze behind his aviator shades scarcely challenged his almost arrogant, Apollonian beauty; in sympathy with classical precepts his hair was cropped in a conservative fashion over maple-brown skin bestowed by a diverse heritage. Fastidious presentation gave him the squared and heavily-contained air of a presidential aide.
“Mr Lamb.” he began, offering his hand. “Nathaniel Shaw, Trident Security. Do you have time for me now, or should I..."
"Please." Edward replied.
"From my first go-round the building seems reasonably secure. The windows are my main concern... I'd suggest talking to your architect before replacing them.” Shaw explained, gesturing toward the house. "Do you have a construction schedule? Crews and scaffolding can challenge any secure routine that we establish..."
"There are no alterations planned." Edward told him. Shaw did not relish his proximity. The obvious possession of a tail or polished hooves could not have repelled him more than the blatant otherness of the creature's skin, or the impersonal and pyrophoric yellow of his eyes. The subject had made no attempt to disguise their character, and used them to enforce the aversive distance he preferred. “We may have had an incident with an intruder. I need you to establish whether it’s ongoing.”
“A secure perimeter is the best place to start. I’ll set up some some seismics... photoelectric units, remote video... see if I can get images.” the guard suggested.
“I don’t want cameras on the property.”
The man’s gaze shifted away behind his glasses.
“Okay... we can work around that. If you're concerned with ongoing attention, to be completely honest with you Mr Lamb, we most often find that stalking and intruder crime can be linked back to people already associated with the premises... we start by establishing a list of everyone who's resident.” He spoke in a broadly reassuring manner, taking a slim black tablet from his pocket. "Then we move on to associates, co-workers, relatives... ex-partners... and come up with a shortlist. I’ll need whoever lives here permanently, all regular guests and maintenance people. And I’d like to set up a curfew, so I can get a feel for any patterns.” He looked to Edward expectantly and was greeted with unqualified refusal. “Sir, it may seem intrusive to you now, but it’s just standard, effective procedure." He perceived the depth of Edward’s disinclination and shook his head, dropping the electronic device from its position between them. “I can assure you right here and now that none of this information will be seen by anyone other than myself.”
"I'll consider a curfew. There is a housekeeper and a personal friend of mine who will be with us intermittently. I'll advise you of all guests in advance.”
“Can I ask if there are any weapons stored on the premises?”
"No." In lifting his hands in a brief, reactive gesture of appeasement Shaw acknowledged the warning contained within the refusal, though he had not intended to do so. Edward seemed satisfied, if impatient with the pace of the discussion.
"And you want sweeps, every..."
"I want you on the ground from nightfall until dawn. If you can't attend for whatever reason, my brother and I will make our own arrangements. I don't want alternates. I expect you to control entry, and I want a regular sweep of both vehicles for devices.” Shaw reviewed his notes. "Look closely at the hill across the road. If you find anything, let me know.” He watched the guard look to the rise beyond the wall.
“Anything at all.” he agreed.
“There are a few special conditions." Nodding, Shaw put the device away, accepting each point as it was related to him. "We don’t enjoy constructive relations with the metropolitan police. Do not contact or consult them under any circumstances. The grounds are your sole area of concern, so I do not expect to see you in the house. And I take personal exception to any hazard or impropriety directed toward the women under my roof.” Edward could scarcely have been more explicit, either with his words or gaze. "These terms are nonnegotiable, so now is the time to articulate any concerns.”
“Mr Lamb, discretion is the cornerstone of what we do. If there’s anything I can show you to put your mind at ease, or maybe demonstrate my commitment...”
“You can have a hard copy of your employment record sent to me.”
“I thought that had been taken care of.” Shaw offered a brief smile. "I apologize on behalf of Trident. Now I always ask this question because a client's instincts are key to whatever's going on at their location... do you feel yourself that there's surveillance or any regular negative attention happening here?"
The question prompted another of his employer's visual exams.
"Prescience and paranoia are evil twins." Edward replied. "You never know which one you're talking to." He withdrew a photograph from his pocket. "Rachelle Addison Whateley, twenty six, five nine, highly motivated, no longer welcome."
Accepting the image, the guard slid it down into his jacket alongside the tablet.
“Would you mind if I get back to walking it out right now? I’d like to finish up before we lose the light.”
Edward walked away toward the front garden, past the greatly diminished remains of the unlucky locust. When he was out of sight Shaw took the handkerchief from his pocket and patted at his brow.
Susan sighed into her helmet and grasped the throttle one more time, shoving back her visor when the scooter refused all encouragement, remaining cold and idle beneath her. Dismounting, she whispered an obscenity at its decrepit mechanics and turned to look over the aging convertible standing alongside Edward’s sedan. Its driver door was a different shade of candy red to that worn by the remainder of the vehicle; movement in the other car led her to the sight of William doubled over on the passenger side. He waved to her and she came toward him, cupping her hands against the window.
“What are you doing?” she whispered.
He blinked as if he could not hear her and pushed the glove compartment closed. She waited for him with eyes that followed the objects in his hands into his pockets as he rose, revealing hair partitioned into ornately-figured cornrows, a closely-tailored shirt of jungle green, silky black tie and matching drainpipes. He towered over the Jaguar as he walked around to the driver’s side, taking her critical gaze with him.
“You look... very pretty.” she smiled, nodding down at the car. “This yours?”
“Erm, yeah. Why not?” He grinned at her hesitancy. “Yes it's mine. Stop falling for my bullshit, Christabel, it only encourages me. Going somewhere?”
“Into town... well, I was going into town..."
Susan looked back at the scooter.
"It died a natural death." she sighed. He reached across to push the passenger door toward her, nodding his sunglasses onto his nose. She sat down slowly, the soft oatmeal leather cool against the back of her bare legs. He smelt like the singing green of his shirt. “Doesn’t Barbie drive one of these?”
“Yeah, but she had to chug a lot of cock to get behind the wheel... only cost me an eight ball and a hand job so who’s the fucking fairy princess now?” he asserted proudly over an ignition he initiated with wires hanging from the steering column.
They flew backward, screeching out onto the drive and swinging perilously along its length; when she saw that he was steering largely from memory she ducked and covered her head with her hands, berating him while he ripped back the hand brake. Their velocity suffered a violent check that dragged the long nose of the Jaguar past the gate post and the car shuddered to a halt on the road, Susan letting go of the dashboard to stuff her seat belt into its housing. With his foot still planted, he fished his phone from his pocket and frowned down at the screen while changing gear, setting them off along the tarmac as though flung from the arm of a trebuchet. Their impetus in both directions had dislodged a jumbled little world of debris from beneath the seat that banked around her mary janes, zip lock bags of pills stamped with stars and skulls, clinking nip bottles, dead electronic ephemera like wave-cast shells, a telescopic truncheon and one half of a silver bikini. She kicked it aside to make room for her feet and settled back in her seat with her hand on the belt across her chest.
The road took them down from the hills into a more currently affluent suburb, the houses becoming taller, pastel-hued and more violently palatial behind their stucco facades, dynastic driveways and gaping vehicular porticos. Susan allowed herself the view from the windscreen only as it became apparent he was a better driver than her worst fears.
“I didn’t think these things were very fast.” she observed.
“What Luc will do in the way of illegal mods for a lick of hash has to be seen to be believed.” he replied.
“It's a really big fine here if they catch you speeding."
“There's a tiny bit of heat on the plates, but I don't have a license and they don’t light you up here for minor shit, so ça roule..." She glanced at him again as they sailed over a dip in the road; the glove compartment fell open, disgorging a box of flavoured condoms and a CD of Cantonese opera onto her lap. “I don’t know how those got in there.” he laughed as he reached across and tossed the prophylactics onto the back seat. William exploited the opacity of his shades to look at her while she busied herself inserting the disc into the console, the dramatic opening strains of the first act bursting forth on either side of them. She wore a string of silvery glass beads and a blue sun dress that brushed her knees, sunlight glowing through its fibres and printing the pattern on her skin with shadow. The Jaguar lurched to a halt at an intersection and he apologized on behalf of its brakes, turning down the aria and glancing back at her frank expression of inquiry, which he obliged, lowering his head toward her. She smiled and pressed a fingertip to one of the scarlet braids over his ear then succumbed to the temptation to stroke the curiously satisfying texture, allowed to sate her curiosity in silence. His collar proved a luminous companion to his skin, distracting her briefly until something else inspired a single note of inarticulate astonishment.
William's right hand lay on the wheel, clearly delineated against the darkness of the dashboard paneling. She caught it as though it were some wary animal and held it in earnest, wordless wonder, forced to count his fingers twice to confirm that there were five instead of four beside his thumb. The replication of conventional polydactyly had found resolution in harmonious gradation, its difference to her own hand seeming entirely of scale. She spoke of it softly to herself, her enthrallment relieving his suspicion that he had appalled her; Susan's gaze fell slowly to his boots.
“Does it... do you... toes as well?”
“Six fingers and five toes would be weird.”
“Does no one notice?”
He shook his head.
“Not for a long time. Are you sure you don't want to hurdle the door? I'd understand..."
“It’s amazing!" Susan laughed. "It's... it's beautiful." The word surprised, then moved them both, and she refused to qualify its immoderation, dividing his fingers gently into varying cohorts. "How do you buy gloves?”
“I don’t.” he admitted.
Still astonished, she replaced his hand on the wheel at the behest of probity, but he could not refuse her wistful stare and returned it to her, watching her appraise its elegant architecture while the lights changed and the cars around them began to pull away. Susan enjoyed it to the exclusion of all else, and with his hand still clasped in hers she stared out through the glass, both baffled and enlightened.
“Do you really play polo? I can not imagine it.”
“Yeah... the Kurdistani dead goat version. Do you ride?”
“I could teach you.”
“You've got horses?”
“No... but I could get some.” Her laugh began to exceed the bounds of polite convention, the bright, hiccuping sound accompanying the glitter of the stud in her nose as she released his hand. “Blah blah blah me me me. What about you? Any fam? Brothers, sisters?”
“Only child. My parents died... car accident... so it's just me.”
“You’re alright.” Susan told him. “I didn’t think you would be, for some reason. You're nicer than I expected.”
The sun was a flaming disc on the smooth black surface of his glasses as he rolled the wheel and took the corner.
“Are we shopping?”
“I need some sort of evening dress thing. Your brother’s taking me out to dinner for some reason, but god, I don’t want to go and I’ve nothing to wear. He said something about reviewing my situation... that’s not good, is it?”
“He must be thinking about signing you on or you’d just wake up face down in the middle of the road one morning.”
“I don’t know what to say to him... he’s... such a...”
“Prick? Like the black rays of an alien sun? A brass-necked, bone dry, joy-crushing bastard? As much fun as a dead dolphin?” he suggested. “You'll be fine... just don't mention anything political, religious... cultural... or scientific... except the laws of furry dynamics or whatever the fuck it is... he's happy to pound on about that shit all day.” He smiled reassuringly as she frowned. “Ed is a fascist shaitan, there's no tap dancing around it, but it’s like... you know... not getting between a crocodile and the water. Watch his left hand under the table, though, I’ve been told about that. Anyhoo, what’s the frock budget?"
"There isn't one.” she chuckled.
“How about an advance?” William held up one of the credit cards he had liberated from his brother's vehicle, flipping it deftly between his fingers. “Ooh, and it’s the black one.” he laughed archly, sucking his breath between his teeth at the thought of its potential. "Let's make the fascist shaitan bust a fucking blood vessel."
Susan eyed the plastic and chewed on the edge of her thumb as she considered the gesture’s malformed chivalry.
“William, I can’t. It’s very nice of you but... I don't...”
“It’s very passive aggressive of you to tell me I’m nice without letting me be nice to you. Why not just slap me and call me a six fingered freak?”
She looked back at him for some time in a laconic manner that began to discomfort him slightly.
"You get away with quite a bit, don't you?"
Keeping his eye on the road he reached back over the seat and retrieved the box of condoms, placing them in her lap and patting her thigh with a crooked grin that developed into laughter. In retaliation, she took the bikini top from the floor and used it to tie the box of prophylactics so that they dangled from the mirror, swinging and striking the side of his head as they cornered.
Leaving the car in an alley, they walked together through downtown blocks to the edge of the prestige retail district, their destination a pair of looming glass doors studded with silver bosses. They guarded a boutique walled with a black finish like that of new French jet, its slick polish supporting a strange array of structures and merchandise united by a sinister visual affinity, their shapes and textures interlocking like questions and answers. Perspex specimen shelves, traction frames and complex, knotted traceries of surgical wire and large-gauge fishing hooks held small collections of ready to wear garments interspersed with handcrafted fetish wear, displayed like trophies cut from the gleaming bodies of mythical beasts. Susan walked past William into the midst of the room where an arrangement of sombre training corsetry graded into those fashioned from doe and ostrich leather worked with traceries of precious metals. Turning slowly, she found a row of featureless black mannequins entwined in luminous shibari ropes, their curious, extrapolating intricacies like the webs of drugged arachnids.
Behind a monolithic granite counter Lilian stood flipping through a magazine until she spied William through the displays and beckoned impatiently. She wore a charcoal-grey kimono dress, an electroplated bird foot pinned to its left breast, and pulled him with her into the darkly-curtained alcove behind the counter.
“Your hair boy said you were in hiding. Turn your fucking phone back on or do something about that crazy Rachelle bitch.” she told him while he watched her prepare an intravenous narcotic on the black shelving. “I don't know the guy who gave me this so you’re going first.” she added over her shoulder. He dumped boxes full of shoes from one of the plastic chairs behind them and slumped down in an attitude of languorous consent, folding his hands behind his head while Lilian stood between his knees. “Got a preference?”
“You know me." he sighed. "I’ll let you put it anywhere.”
She rolled back his sleeve, tying off a length of braid around his bicep before attempting to raise a vein.
“Who’s the beard?”
“Susan.” he sighed again. “We’re getting married.”
“You dirty whore.” She worked in vain to find his vessels. “For fuck's sake... were your parents even human? You got a total fucking fish arm.”
William plucked the syringe from her fingers, stabbed it into the crook of his elbow and sat back as the drug rode through him to modest effect.
“It’s like a pixie farted in my ear." She frowned and packed away her gear. "What do you think?” he added quietly, rolling down his sleeve as he followed her out into the boutique and nodded toward Susan. “Do I have a chance?”
Lilian examined the object of his interest in some detail.
“It’s hard to know. She can’t think straight in here... the shit’s talking to her.” She glanced at Susan again, leant against the counter and went back to her magazine while the latter perused the dresses at some distance from them. Slowly, almost stealthily, William slid along beside the granite and lowered his chin to Lilian's shoulder, his hand finding her rump and following it downward. She allowed the discreet imposition for a short while, caught between objection and her taste for novelty.
“Frost...” he whispered, parting the fair hair over her ear with his finger; a strange warmth slid down her neck like syrup. “Did I ever tell you about the girl who took me home and closed her eyes and got everything she wanted?” It was the very opiated sweetness of his voice that engaged her suspicion.
“You are fucking kidding me.” she hissed. “Now you want to go? We shower together... you've been sleeping in my fucking bed for five years and you only prod me in your sleep...”
“I'm a territorial mofo.” he promised. She laughed at the assertion. “Frost...” He privately formulated and abandoned several approaches. “Please don’t hook up with my brother.”
“I hook up with everyone’s brother.” she quipped, going back to her magazine. “I’m your worst fucking nightmare.” William leant over on his elbows and stared out through the glass facade while she continued to feign disregard, though the intensity of his misgivings distracted her from the pages.
“What can I say to stop you?”
“Something about his account being overdrawn.”
“You would comp him in a heartbeat and that’s exactly what I’m talking about. It’s already a thing... you’re thinking about it right now...”
“Because you’re fucking my ears with it.” she exclaimed. “It’s not a thing, okay?” They glared at each other warily, Lilian still flipping pages. “Yet. And go frot something else.” She looked at Susan pointedly. “Something that won’t mace your ass and call the cops.” Her phone flashed on the granite beside her, the blue glow prompting him to reach toward it and examine the messages idly.
“At twelve fourteen today, Orb the capslock bandit said... pick it up bitch... then something about... I don’t know what that word is... BTW, he’s going to put you in the river when he find you, bitch. What the hell were you thinking? Albinos are the devil’s work."
"Brian's a wigger, not a fucking albino."
"Oh, and what do we have here?" William inquired. "At eleven ten, eleven twelve, eleven sixteen, eleven twenty and eleven twenty two, Edward Lamb said...” The text of their exchanges fashioned his features into a vindicated grimace that he turned toward her once more, pushing the phone along the counter and wiping his hand on his sleeve. "I’d say he kissed his mother with that mouth, but I don't think he ever did.” he shuddered. “But I don’t have to worry about this, because you’re not into him.” She pressed her mouth into a straight line. “Ever looked at someone and gotten a really bad feeling?”
“Every goddamn day.”
“Stand there and tell me you don’t get that from him.”
Her milk-blue eyes held a curious blend of surprise and involuntary concession. He watched her tip her shoulders back self-consciously, pressing the pages to the counter with both hands in a determined redirection.
“What do you want me to do?" Lilian demanded. "He’s rich, he's a perverted freak... he’s totally built under all those clothes, fucks like an animal, goes all night... I can't sit down right now and that's the way I like it, so yeah... unless you can tell me he microwaves crack babies in his spare time, you’re shit out of luck.” William clapped his hands over his ears. "You knocked on that door, so step off my dick or it gets worse.”
“Are you coming to our party? I’ll send you an invitation.”
“The group show at the house? Someone already invited me.”
Lilian glanced sideways at his sudden decampment to the alcove behind her, the sound of some intense physical effort prompting her to peer around the partition, but the pale blue light indicating customer ingress flashed on the wall over her head and she returned to her station in time to see Rachelle Whateley striding through the doors as though she were late to some event in her own honour. Clutching the strap of her handworked bag she quartered the displays with an unfailing eye; it returned several times to Susan as the latter pulled a garment from the stand before her. The fruit-coloured fabric of Rachelle’s short summer dress stressed the faultless nature of her tan. She pushed her glasses back over her blow-out.
“Hey, mudflap girl... we’re closed.” Lilian told her.
Rachelle stalked around the display that lay between them and stood looking at Susan, who glanced back at her after a while out of curiosity.
“Oh please... if Wil-liam’s not here then what is she doing? She can hardly make the bus fare down here.” she snorted back.
“Get the fuck out, Rachelle. Store policy.” the latter advised. Far from obeying the directive, the statuesque intruder wandered toward the counter and set her bag on it, cocking her head at Lilian in wide-eyed, synthetic sympathy.
“Don't you have some dick to suck? I don't know how you find the time." she smiled.
"I was gonna take a two hour lunch to suck your boyfriend's."
"My god... when I think about it, this must be so hard for you... him leaving you behind like you were a sack of trash... that's got to feel like a lot of rejection.” Rachelle smirked. “You must have hated us being together. There you were, praying he’d make it past the nasty baggage one day. But it’s like bitterness is all people see now when they look at you...”
“It looks like bitterness, but it’s rage.” Lilian replied. Susan smiled; a small, half-choked sound issued from the stock alcove. Rachelle marched around the black gloss wall, standing with her hands on her hips and scanning every inch of shelving before ripping back the rubber curtain to expose the empty dressing room. “Wow, it’s like he never stops calling or trying to get with you.” Lilian laughed over her shoulder. “Guess we’ll never know what it’s like to be his special lady.” She picked up the phone, shaking her head as it rang. “Patrick? There’s this crazy fucking day-release bitch here trying to shove half the store in her bag... blonde, fake LV... you’ll love her.” Replacing the receiver, she regarded Rachelle with some satisfaction. “That’s Patrick, our mall cop and he’s a taser freak, so you better dust the fuck off before he gets down here and melts your Tijuana funbags.” Still clutching the dress, Susan let go of the laughter she had held tight to that point while Rachelle hissed furiously at both of them.
“You’re both mentally ill!"
When she had gone, the two remaining women walked together around the partition in their curiosity, amazed to discover that William had ascended the tall stack of box shelving and wedged himself between it and the silver ceiling tiles; he let himself down and hung from the ventilation grille.
“Did you hear that bitch?” Lilian chuckled, returning to the counter. “In Rachelle’s world, I'm dry humping you,you’re monogamous and she’s an internationally-respected icon. I’m almost getting why you fucked her.”
Susan stood before the register with a dress draped carefully over an arm.
“I can’t find a price on it anywhere... could you..?” The scan altered her expression from apprehension to dismay. William turned the screen toward himself and looked to Lilian incredulously, sliding the card from his pocket. “William, please, don't... I won’t be able to pay you back for a year.” Susan murmured as she attempted to stall the transaction. He pulled the dress from the counter, standing back to hold it up against himself.
“It’s got stretch. We can go halves.”
“You don’t think it’s... too much? I think I might be too short for it.”
Lilian laughed ironically.
“Ask the freak in the frog shirt.” She turned back to William. “And your name doesn't start with E, so take your fucking crimewave downtown.”
“But it’s a virgin... does thou leave it thus, a maid, still so blushing and unsatisfied?” he purred. She tapped the card on the countertop impatiently before reaching down to run the transaction.
“If he asks, I’m gonna tell him.” He leant over the marble partition and licked her cheek as she packed the dress. “Get the fuck away from me.” Lilian sighed. She swung a printed bag full of hand-picked clothing at him. “And put this shit on when you get there.”
Susan and William took their respective seats in the Jaguar, turning to glance at one another when she rustled the bag to attract his attention.
“She is. Bondage queen... plays both ends.”
“Are you... into that?”
He laughed as he grappled with the ignition.
“Christabel, you just asked me, your employer, to my face, if I'm a sexual deviant out of total idle curiosity."
"You're not my boss."
"Now you're completely undermining my authority." He shook his head. "There's something about you... I don't know what it is, but it does concern me, even more than your obsession with my sexuality.”
Susan took a hair clip from her handbag and pinned her fringe out of her eyes while he spoke, then leant forward, turning the stereo up until he stopped talking. They took a different route out of the city, William driving them in a scenic loop enlivened by his mendacious commentary though it lapsed as they headed back toward the house, leading her to suspect that something was still exercising him privately. She slid off her shoes and tucked a foot under her leg.
“Now you’re being too quiet.”
“I’m plugging a vent.” he admitted.
“Vent away, honestly...”
“I really love Lilian... she’s my best friend around here, but christ... I realised the other day that I’d known her for years without ever letting her meet my fucking brother. And now I know why. It’s happening already, in slow motion and it’s going to be so bad, and I’m sitting here looking at it like a fucking idiot, doing nothing...”
She seemed to consider the problem without prejudice.
“How do you know? That it’s going to be bad? It might be alright... I would probably just do nothing too.”
He shook his head, both hands on the wheel.
“I tried that the first time.”
She did not understand the reference and shrugged, applying lip salve in the bright yellow heat of the afternoon.
“They don't really look like the sort of people who need protecting.” she insisted, to which he shook his head again, more slowly and emphatically as he accepted the gloss from her. She lay her head against the padded rest and smiled at his obscure misgivings. “What would life be like if no one ever did anything stupid? Nothing would ever happen.”
“When it come t' immortalidy, we got th’ fuckin cheap seats, an ah aint afraid t' say it. But yew all sittin theya with ye snake face an ye superioriddy fuckin complex... well, ah chewed shit up an shat it out wernce too... kint say ah fuckin miss it."
The sneery little speaker waved a cigarette before its black eyes, squinting at Edward past both the smoke and the suffocating pan-stick that had staled on its skin like rendered fat. Electric blue lashes sagged from its livid grey lids; a towering headpiece featuring a plastic cornucopia of waxy fruit and flowers pitched dangerously sideways on its narrow skull, two enormous raspberries wobbling furiously and threatening to tear free from its despondent earlobes. A gold-plated pendant misspelled Siobhan around its neck. The creature sat coiled in its chair, as wizened and parasitic as a pea crab while the Black Moth, that seedy, dismal nightclub suffering its interminable tenure, enclosed them like some moribund cavity.
“Ahm tellin ye...” it continued, waving a crooked finger in Edward’s face. “Ye aint fuckin lived shit til ye sucked everythin outta somewern while theya screamin lahk a fuckin baby on a burnin fuckin train...” The vampyre's voice dropped again as though gurgling down a drain. “Kint believe yew all never tried it, what with ye hackin up everythin that don’t fuckin move fast enough fer th’ price of a fuckin rahde home... surpris'd ye didn’t shank ye dink skank of a mammy when she were durn squittin ye out.” It snorted to itself. “Heh heh heh... ye prob’ly did. An ye still think killin’s all bout the fuckin ‘muneration. Me, ah don’t git paid til ah bust th’ skin, an th’ juice come sprayin out swith-lahk, amain an fuckin endlong... an they squirmin an fuckin twitchin lahk ye got em plugged in where it don't shine... ah tell yeh, that shit raght there'll keep ye young.” It trailed off, staring away into some private vista and sucking saliva down its throat before rousing itself once more, putting up a hand to steady its headgear. “Ye kin tell that cocksuckin brother a yers ahm gonna shoot his ass an whatever skank he’s conjugatin at the tahme... he kin bitch about meh terminatin ye lease til kingdom come raght in a hoe's lap. Ah jest bout hed the fuckin sight a him, an kint say ahm messin mahself at th’ prospect a yew neither.”
The club’s interior was rendered entirely in varying degrees and densities of black, from its puckered walls to the smeary laminate bar and the filth-obscured floor that sucked at the soles of patrons' shoes. It held a malodorous, almost articulate murk in which whey-hued faces bobbed like body parts in an oilslick, thin or bloated, loathsome and mantis-like, ringed by the failing, thewless slaves that attended them like souls already subject to infernal dominion. The candle on the table between Edward and his dreadful companion struggled as though for want of oxygen.
“Now there’s talk down at mah project bout spook-sniffin assholes greasin round, wonderin where yew all lit out to.” It crammed a wrinkled cigarette into the overflowing tray and placed another between its scant vermillion lips. “Never fuckin stop talkin, do ye Ed?” Edward consulted his phone while the creature sat back against the vinyl. “Heard ye gittin Opal t’ hose th’ hot shit off ye merc cheques. That old cottonmouth bitch aint blood t’ no wern ah know... fuckin looks on us lahk we aint fit t’ pinch wern out, an ye go t’her? That aint fuckin raght...”
Behind them on a tiny, black-wreathed stage, the blasphemous simalcrum of some vintage starlet, complete with turret cleavage and improbable cerise bouffant, began to lisp a Cole Porter number into the microphone, aping such broken elements of burlesque and fluttering allure as they were able to recall. Bar girls lolled behind the counter, wasted charms spilling from their strapped-up leather as they led a slow clap and the performer slid the microphone inside its skirt. Edward's host pulled a bitter face and waved toward the bewigged savant.
“Fuckin open mike nights... ah aint nev'r gonna learn." Siobhan complained. “If ye aint got nothin fer meh, quit scarin’ off mah payin customers.” Its companion pulled an envelope from the pocket of his jacket.
"Nationalidy?” it muttered, inserting a fingernail into an ear and extracting a pinkish clot as it scowled at the photographs provided.
"EU, no preference.”
“What’s so fuckin wrong w' bein Nahgerian, jest like everybody else?” A stifled groan issued from under the table and a young man's head appeared alongside the vampyre's elbow, red-eyed and barely conscious. The latter glanced down and exclaimed to itself, delivering a round of savage blows to the youth's face to suppress the unscheduled interruption. Edward reached across the table for the envelope, which his host snatched up, glaring alternately at the pictures and their owner. “Shippin out ye own kahnd on the fuckin down-low... labourin for that wall-eye'd cunt Opal... ye g..."
“If you can't do the work I’ll take it to Pink Fred.”
The judicious mention of a rival’s name provoked the desired effect.
“Ah kin fuckin git em...”
“I want them tomorrow.”
The tower of lucite fruit lurched forward again.
“Ye sure is in some kahnda swivet fer em, aint ye?” it hissed shrewdly; Edward pushed a roll of currency across the table and stood up while it weighed the bundle in its spidery hand. “All a this raght when we got a fuckin avalanche a refya-gees washin up this side a th’ fuckin main, crahin’ their fuckin eyes out an wantin’ papers too... an here ah am, shiftin fer a fuckin snakeface lahk ah weren’t raised no fuckin better.”
He stepped over the vampyre’s unconscious victim on his way toward the door.
Susan walked too quickly in a black dress that had proved too long, though she stood much taller in the stacked heels that crushed her toes together. She glanced at the maître d' as he pulled her chair, unsure where to settle her handbag amid the intimidating formality of the private dining room and the clockwork manners of its attendants. The table before her was drowned in vanilla linens; she leant around its centrepiece of pale lemon lilies and whispered quickly, keeping her eyes on the blooms.
“I’m sorry, Mr Lamb... the taxi was late, then there was a nutter in town holding up traffic with a rubber gun or something...”
Edward had not dressed for the occasion. He looked up from his newspaper just long enough to constitute an acceptance of her apology; she patted at her hair while the waiter filled her glass, murmuring the name of the dark vintage softly. On the wall a gilded mirror reflected her hunch and she sat up as though kicked, William’s risqué warning making her ears red and keeping her legs together under the table. The thought of taking refuge behind the menu dissolved as she saw that it was couched entirely in French. Her gaze climbed the text toward her host, only to discover that Edward had put away his newspaper and already begun to subject her to a visual exam. His presence gained volume in the quietude, rolling toward her as though from some distant, submersing ocean; the more she looked at him the greater its disturbing influence became and the more he seemed revised by it in turn.
“I um... I don’t speak French. Do you know what’s nice?” She picked up her glass and drank its contents in a long draught. "Anything with chicken..."
“I don’t eat flesh.” he replied.
“Oh... sorry." With her random selection entrusted to the waiter, Susan accepted another charge of wine, her empty stomach conveying its effect immediately and supporting the idea that decisiveness would stand her in better stead than timidity. “Do you think you’ll stay at that house? You'll probably have to do something about the roof before winter.” When he failed even to glance up in reply she set her elbows on the table, took her head in both hands and stared down at her knees. “Mr Lamb, if you’re letting me go, can you please just get on with it?” she urged. “Sitting here waiting for it's doing my head in.”
Edward listened to the clicking of her jaw, then stood up from his chair.
“I’ve decided not to pick up your contract. You can finish the week, or not, as you prefer.” he informed her, watching her
blanch, then flush. “Excuse me.” he added, departing without further explanation. A youthful waiter stepped aside for him, watching him go then grinning at Susan in his stiffly buttoned shirt, leaning over the flared white plate he set before Edward’s chair.
“That guy’s a right bastard.” he whispered in a Glaswegian accent, craning his neck to look around them. “Not a fucking tip in five years.” She watched in fascinated disgust as he hoiked quietly over the bowl, adding a gobbet of phlegm to the broth and swirling it into the liquid with a slow rotation. He winked at her and she scowled at her own plate, at which he shook his head. “No love, you’re okay, have a go... it’s great soup.”
Reaching out, Susan dealt the remaining wine into her glass and quaffed it swiftly, considering herself no more beholden to civility than her erstwhile host. Edward returned before she had decided how to address the actions of the devious, expectorating attendant; watching him resume his seat, she sat motionless while he dipped his spoon into the soup, her breath banking behind her frown.
“Mr Lamb...” she murmured, leaning forward with a hand to her mouth. “Don’t.” His strange eyes rose to hers. “It’s... cold, and horrible. Just... have them take it back.” He inclined his head once more. Susan's stare followed his spoon toward his chin until her hand burst through the intervening flowers, pulling his bowl into the blooms and almost scuttling them both. “The waiter gobbed in it.” she sighed, dropping back into her chair and hauling up the neck of her dress. He glanced down at the bowl.
“He said it's because you’re a bastard.”
Edward reclined a moment.
“Do you enjoy working at Commoriom Drive?”
“Not really, no. I just needed the job.”
"I'm interested in employing you in a private capacity." Her surprise, and then suspicion prompted his admiration for the unfailing nature of her instincts.
"I can't leave La Rue Personnel... I owe fees."
"Does she hold any of your documentation?"
"No... but I knew three girls who couldn't pay, and they disappeared... everyone says if you don't cough up, she has you deported."
He stood out of his chair again and walked around the table, pausing to drop a cheque for her first month's wages at her elbow.
"So I still have a job, then?" Susan scowled when he refused to concede any explicit confirmation. "I'll need a contract..."
"I'll have one drawn up. I have to leave." Edward told her, frowning slightly as she stared at him relentlessly, as though fearing he would retract the offer to punish her credulity. “Stay. It’s on me.”
The Scottish waiter smiled as Edward approached the kitchen door and slid a folded banknote into his hand in acknowledgement of his efforts. From the exit he glanced back into the private alcove; Susan sat as he had left her, staring blankly as the soup was replaced with a plump chicken breast and fragrant puy lentils.
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