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Susan yawned as she spooned pink fish roe onto croutons and transferred them to an enormous silver platter. Several members of a morose, diminutive indie band loafed about the catering kitchen in chucks and constrictive, threadbare jeans, eating from the benches and dourly deploring any attempt to move their guitar cases. The aged facility, mothballed on the far side of the garage, had been resurrected to the acclaim of no one forced to toil within its glossy orange walls; the catering corps bemoaned their draconian conditions over the din created by the clashing trays and dishes extracted from the ovens, shaking out the tiny pastries to be plated up. Susan pulled out another tray while a short woman in coin-gold lamé and oily purple lipstick stalked in through the swing doors. Opal swept the youthful faces with a hooded glare.
“You all belong to me so I should not have to start at zero. But let me make a few things absolutely crystal clear." she began, as though addressing a vanquished army. “No smoking, no drinking, no stealing food you haven't paid for, and no drug use. Remove all lipstick and jewellery... if you have a tattoo you cannot conceal, turn in your uniform and leave the property. Some of you seem to be strangers to personal hygiene... if I tap you on the shoulder I don't want to see you again.” Opal declared. "Do not speak unless you are asked a direct question and if I see an autograph request, the offender will be dismissed without remuneration, along with the person nearest to them. The same goes for fraternizing with the entertainment.” She glared at those band members who had neglected to slide out of the kitchen on her arrival. "So remember. You, and the person next to you.”
Opal made a slow circuit of the kitchen, each member of staff suffering a personal inspection that resulted in a number of the summary dismissals she had prognosticated. With her review concluded, she left the hirelings to their grievances while Susan hoisted the tray in both hands and took the same route through the swing doors. She was startled by a flash of gold in the darkness of the hall where the woman had waited for her, standing behind the tall white plume emitted by her cigarette.
“Ms Christabel... I always wondered if that was your name or just something you just made up on the boat.” Opal’s heavily-shadowed eyes formed twin foci for the darkness that leaked into the air around her like radiation; a chugging little chuckle developed in her chest and rolled out past her tiny nostrils. “Oh... that’s good... that look, and the accent... working the uniform, sleazing your way out of your obligations to me... and they say it’s not a skilled profession. What exactly are you doing? What's..." Her face contracted tightly as she sucked both cheeks into a speculative scowl. "What's going on here?" She had doused herself in costly perfume to such an uncomfortable degree that its fatuous base notes reached out with choking fingers, as though the bottle lay emptied on the floor between them. The longer Susan stood frowning at her peculiar gloating, the stronger her suspicion became that there was something physically wrong with her, some profound metabolic disturbance that had turned the skin of her face waxily inflexible and stilled the little chorus of unconscious gestures that she expected in someone so arrantly vocal.
"I do actually have a job to do, so..."
"I don't think I appreciate your tone."
"Well, I work for the Lambs now, so I don't really care." Susan assured her. "Talk to them about it."
Opal sneered and flicked her cigarette against the panelling, forcing her back to the wall in an attempt to safeguard the unwieldy platter as she stalked off.
Edward’s studio had been stripped and transformed by a large, fractious team of dressers into a vault of stark, draped, cosmic blackness, partitioned into chambers that ensconced the works of three exalted novices, one freshly paroled and making the most of the thrilling spectacle posed by the tracking device affixed to his ankle. The crowd, intercepted at the gate and ushered directly into the studio, was split between those enjoying vintage Dior, costly toupees and the ability to purchase, and the artists' acquaintances with their gallinacious hair and devotion to the open bar. William stood alone next to an installation contrived from tangarine plastic melted onto a coil of chickenwire over a bed of quartzite pebbles. He clutched a deep green milk bottle of bollchu and regarded the undesired masses with a displeasure to which he could scarcely commit in the face of their engrossing conceits. From the door their hostess worked her way through a circuitous trajectory, closing steadily on her target. He heaved a sigh at her approach but took no evasive measure.
“There is a dresscode.” Opal snarled. William’s T-shirt and slouching, indifferent trousers forced her lips back from her teeth. “You look like landfill.” He cast a retaliatory eye over her own attire; in the lamé she resembled a tightly-foiled chocolate but he reserved the observation, leaning down instead and pointing into the opposite corner.
“This is all awesome, but if you screw up your eyes, that one there looks like a mermaid humping a paperclip. Or... a cow, stuck in a bong.”
“Keep this up and Rachelle will be eighty-four before I pull her off you.” she informed him with a smile.
“Haven’t you already sold her arse to some blinging dynastic concern? Better wrap that shit up before she elopes with Knuckles McConvict over there.” he laughed, nodding toward the conspicuous felon. “Opal, she’s your descendant, not something in a paper bag you set fire to on peoples' doorsteps. How can you be so fucking shameless about kicking her around?”
She joined in his facetious mirth.
“Do you really want to know?”
“Do I look disinterested?”
“It’s because that simpleminded bag of hair has disappointed me.” Opal admitted, lifting her chin. “I was hoping for so much, and am forced to work with so very little.”
William swigged from the bottle.
“You and your high standards.”
She scrutinized the crowd again, quantifying no-shows.
“Tell me, whatever your name is... what’s your take on our friends over the sea? Don’t you think it’s time someone brought a little order to this side of the Atlantic?”
“You mean do I want to be fucked prison-styles by bossy vampyres?”
“I don’t think your brother sees it that way.”
“I don't know, Opal... he’s not that great as an evil henchman... better men than you have tried to put him in a uniform, so don't get too excited. He’s more of an evil independent contractor.”
"He knows as well as anyone that the House always wins... your brother and I will be skimming the take from our corner suites while the Prague contingent are taking you out back.”
“You can grind on him all you like as long as it's keeping me in the style to which I'm accustomed... I don't have any shame about that... but if you're trying to put your dick in my mouth, dip it in jam or set up an account in my name.”
“Is that what it would take to make you go away?”
“I'm just kidding... you can't actually get rid of me." he shrugged. "You could leave.”
He watched Opal abandon him and swallowed the last of his drink, leaning down to set the empty bottle in the pebbles beneath the installation. The heavy black cloth hung from the ceiling caught and bent the voices in the middle of the room in a curious aural anomaly, and William enjoyed it as he walked around the partitions. Outside, the hallway was curtailed in both directions by velvet ropes; stepping over them he made for Edward’s rooms and in the doorway of the adjacent chamber discovered Susan on a requisitioned chair, a plate of sushi and bottle of beer in either hand.
"Is he in there?" he whispered. She shrugged, spilling sesame seeds down the front of her shirt. “Wow, how crazy is this party? I won’t know myself in the morning.”
“It's fantastic. That bloody cow Opal threatened to RDT us.” she muttered.
“Did she give you any shit?”
“She did, actually. God, she’s well creepy when you see her up close.”
“I know, she just tried to land on me in the studio. What did she say?”
“Something about..." Susan frowned to herself. "I don't actually know... it's like watching telemundo. I sort of told her to bite her bum... hope you don’t mind. Wish I'd been more rude now.”
“I wouldn’t mind if you fed her rat poison.”
“We practically are.” she grinned. “The fridges aren’t working properly.”
He leant back against the framing in the doorway, bowing his head to light the joint that he slid from his pocket.
“The art’s pretty rubbish.” she observed. William laughed in hearty assent.
“That’s cruel, but fair. It’s worse than Ed’s steaming pile of hoe shit and I don’t say that lightly about anything.” They cackled together at the thought of it. “Those little connards out there just don’t know any better, but in real life Ed’s so fucking talented I used to be scared of his pictures.”
"I know, I saw one." Susan shuddered, brushing the crumbs from her skirt. "I wish I hadn't... it gave me bad dreams for a week." She raised her rice ball in a little flourish, smiling from her chair. “Did I tell you the good news? I’m hired.”
Without replying, he crabbed suddenly into the darkness beside her, pressing himself against the paneling so that he could not be seen from the hallway. She pulled back her chair and leant out cautiously; the sound of a familiar, imperious gait on the stairs appraised her of the unseen menace before it swept up onto the landing.
“Congratulations on the job.” William whispered. The toes of her patent heels touched those of his disheveled sneakers as she shook his hand; she bent down to reclaim her bottle from the floor and his eyes fell to the black seams of her stockings.
“Thanks, but you'll have to hide from Rachelle somewhere else because this is my special slacking bunker, and if she comes in here I'll have to bottle her.” she smiled. Her face was full of mild, glowing colours and amused distrust as she watched his eyes change, his pupils spreading out into the silky green; he slid down against the wood to resolve the differential between their statures. “Cake or death.” she added.
“On your shirt.” She nodded to the small French phrase printed across his chest. “I worked it out. And you know that language, the one you argue in... say something to me.”
“No no no... it’s dialect. You’ll think I’m backward and country.”
“Alright...” he sighed. “Er... il ava'ilsii li n’ thi’ii sa’e shama y'lissa sahsa'ih sae ai’ina.” The sleek, luxurious syllables relieved his voice of its mundane aspects and it became almost a stranger's, each vowel bleeding coolly into the next. He watched her attempt it, whispering to herself in wayward repetition.
“What did you say?”
He laughed uneasily, tongue sliding into the corner of his mouth.
"Er... the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain, but also on the hotties... it has no real preference.” A small clutch of new arrivals began to mount the stairs, ushered toward the studio by chaperones. Again Susan became contemplative, and she leant closer.
“You smell like... something with... flowers... like a florist’s shop. Like when you walk past in the morning and they’re doing all the bunches for the day.”
“No..." she tisked, rolling her eyes. "It’s horrible.” Studying the label of the bottle in her hand, Susan spoke again without looking at him. “Do you want to go out somewhere? For dinner?” His head sank toward his shoulder as though he needed time to consider the proposition and she stepped on his foot in reply to the provoking affectation.
“Are you making a pass at me, Christabel?”
“It’s not exac....”
“Where're we going? I’ve got a place in Paris... well, it’s Ed’s, but I have keys. Do you like France?”
“I don’t know! I’ve only ever been to Bruges on a school trip.” she scoffed, vaguely disturbed by his apparent lack of guile. “Stop taking the piss!”
“You’re right, we should keep it local. You could pay, and then maybe... you know... pressure me for sex.” His long legs parted on either side of hers. “Don’t worry.” he smiled. “I’m cheap. And easy.”
Edward appeared at the door to his suite and Susan excused herself hastily, ducking out and hiding her bottle behind her short skirt on her way toward the stairs. William gazed after her in an abstracted fashion while his brother stood knotting his tie in the doorway, his woolgathering attitude prompting Edward to await an explanation. Bringing his hands together beneath his chin, his brother performed a grateful namaste.
“You picked up her contract.”
“That is clemency, not license.”
“Who was the hot guy in the garden yesterday?”
“Now that privacy is just something other people enjoy, I've drafted in security. She can’t be alone here at night. Though solitude hardly seems her most pressing concern.”
William shrugged lazily.
“What can I say? She's got standards." he declared, leaning back against the wall. "BTW... your bad news bear is here already. I tried to make conversation but she takes every fucking thing the wrong way.”
“Go to bed.”
“I will, but you owe me, and I just dropped enough mescaline to put a fucking Clydesdale into orbit so make the spooky kids take their crazy tupperware with them when they go.”
He scooted past the studio door and vaulted the ropes that cordoned his rooms. William had hardly retired before Lilian ascended the stairs alone in a backless sheath of lustreless satin, sullen copper buried in its blackness. Though compelled to turn toward Edward as she passed him in the doorway she neither spoke nor smiled, making her way into the crowd alone in an arc that wandered past the central pieces, their structures obscuring then framing his view of her. When she had attained the site of their private debut she accepted a glass from a passing tray and sipped from it before looking toward him. The nature of his gaze conceded nothing to her apprehension of it; admirers spoke to him in passing, walking on with puzzled scowls while he ignored them, staring over their heads at her as though she were the only other sentient presence. Lilian drank champagne while she remained in her remove, but her slow return took her once more past his position. He could hear her standing behind him in the shadow that he cast into the hallway; she spoke over his shoulder.
“Looks lucrative. Who’s your agent?”
“Opal La Rue.”
“Thought she only handled entertainment assholes.”
“She’s branching out. I left a message on your machine.”
She stepped closer, bringing herself against his back. The shoulder of his suit smelled faintly of his skin, of dry white wood and the ghostly amber that had once sustained it.
“Oh yeah... that. Lucky I don’t have a room mate to call the fucking cops on your degenerate ass.”
“As long as you enjoyed it.”
“I liked it fine. I liked it about five times today already... I liked it right before I came out here.” The words fell from her lips while her hand moved between the silk lining of his jacket and the cool fabric of his shirt. She found his belt and eased her fingers down behind it. “I put it on my ipod and liked it in the store after I closed up. The counter’s stone, and jesus... it's so fucking cold when you lie down... sometimes, I have to force myself to do it...”
"I intend to relieve you of all such responsibilities."
Edward took her wrist and led her from the studio, dragging aside the velvet rope.
“There are some pieces you should see.” he insisted.
“Lamb, I hope that’s like, a euphemism... I’ve seen your art and I’d rather you fucked me.”
“Have it your way.”
She pulled him up, sliding her arm through his hand and nodding toward the stairs.
“No beds. I’m going through a phase. Cars. I like cars.”
The lights in the stairwell, tenuous at the best of times, had either been extinguished or fallen victim to their wiring; the darkness had become more populous since her arrival, its deep green walls loosely thronged with a disturbing clade of gatecrashers, akin to one another beyond the unifying values of their dark garb and contempt for the occasion. The sinister avidity of their stares stayed with her as she moved in Edward’s wake, their low-pitched exchanges pausing and resuming with their passing.
“You got a wide circle.” she observed, watching him produce the keys to the garage. Sharp, cackling laughter made her glance back over shoulder; when she looked once more to Edward, the figure in the front door consigned her planned remark.
“Now here she be.” the pimp observed, his face halved by a malicious grin. He stepped into their path, tugging on his cufflinks. “You like this one? All the bald head like this snowy bitch but I say, nuh close your eye... she chalk your roll an gweh while you still in agonies.” His host received the advice stoically, but Lilian proved less taciturn.
“I’m not on the meter so back the fuck up, and I swear, if you bomb my phone one more time, I will fucking kill you with it.”
Orb stamped a foot down in an attempt to discompose her, pulling up when she stepped behind Edward. The former tipped back his locked head and coughed out a croaking chuckle.
“Wha? She nah belong to you.”
“Brian, go eat a fucking bowl of dicks.” Lilian directed. His move to reach her overstepped the latitude her companion had allowed, and Edward seized and pitched him hard against the wainscoting, the panelling clattering on its framing with the impact. Walking up behind her advocate, she stood with her arms folded, smoothing the edge of the rug down with the toe of her shoe. “If you could wipe him over that would be great... I need to wrap this shit up somewhere. May as well be here.” she advised. He obliged her request, Orb’s white suit yielding a small black handgun and a folding knife; Edward continued his manual survey until it had satisfied them both, then allowed his subject to stand unaided. She pushed open the smaller kitchen door. “In here okay?”
“I’m not comfortable with this.” he said, putting out an arm to stay her disaffected handler. Lilian looked back to Orb.
“If you pull any shit, I'll let him put your head right up your ass.” she told him.
In an allegory of their confrontation a disturbance had arisen behind the stairwell, the heckling flaring into a brief, scrabbling struggle that was ended by the sound of Opal’s voice as she clattered down toward it in her determination to quash any escalation. She shoved through her leering biological contemporaries in no mood to tolerate them. Lilian shook her head.
“Lamb, your tricks are my tricks, but greed's only good when it does you right.”
“Have you told your pimp?”
“Have you told yours?” she smirked. She withdrew and pressed the door closed before Opal could intervene.
“It’s that little dirtbag from the Moth and it’s filthy horde... I want them out!” she snapped, tossing a hand back at the crowd milling behind her, but Edward walked from her before she could conclude her admonishment, parting the onlookers with his expression.
The starry white seeds of the clematis drifted into Susan's hair as she stood in the drawing room doorway, tugging down the hem of her skirt with her eyes closed, adjusting them to the darkness. It began in a dim gradient beyond the pool, the water lapping slowly at the tiled sides and the cool smell of the orchard replacing the stink of cigarette smoke, confused perfumes and dirty glasses as she walked out. William lay on a sun lounge almost halfway to the trees with headphones over his ears. Away from the house it was so quiet that she could make out his choice of music, though she was given pause by movement in the shadow beneath his chair. A fox sat on its side, plucking burdocks from its tail; at the sight of her it sprang up and slunk away, its low shape merging with the grass. William's clothes and hair were still wet from his traverse of the pool and he lay with his hands curled on his stomach and his eyes closed. In lieu of their absorbing influence his face proved entirely serene, dreamless, though as she leant closer the rhythm of his breathing was so slow that she was relieved to see him stir. While he pulled his headphones down a smooth, retractile movement swept across each eye, concluding with his focus on her face; blinking, she opened her mouth to speak, then shook her head.
“A person with a naked lady tattooed on his neck came to the kitchen and told me to give you this.” she reported, handing over the brown paper parcel she had been entrusted with. He lifted it to his nose before looking at the house, disgruntled to see that the event was still in progress.
“Christ, don’t they have homes to go to?”
“It’s only twelve.” she replied.
“Have you decided where we’re going yet?”
Susan shook her head.
“I can't think where I'd take you.”
At her frown he beckoned to her, and she set aside uncertainty before offering the hand he had requested. He took it in his own, finding one of the small hollows on the underside of her wrist where her skin was shaded blue and paper-thin; it transmitted every nuance of the strange and dislocated pleasure that his touch imparted, bleeding upward toward her elbow in concert with the softly-stroking dulcet of his voice.
Opal let the overworked smile drop from her face and turned her stare upon the garden from the balcony, a glass full of expiring, untasted champagne clutched in her small hand. With nyctalopic acuity she perceived the figure of the maid in her formal attire standing before William, her will divided between his invitation and the failing boundaries of discretion; Susan inclined toward him slowly, until he seemed to reconsider the solicitation and let go of her hand. She stepped back, as though released by a far more comprehensive grasp, hesitated, and returned alone toward the house.
In Susan's absence, no peyote phantoms came to rattle flashing scales or spill out from behind the shapes and colours William already knew, and he concluded that the potion’s uncertain effect was hardly worth its evil savour. The veil of ornamenting galaxies strung across the darkness overhead were but a dying echo of the skies seen from the mountains and the soundless wastes of memory, their fearsome splendor crowded with divine memorials and the glitter of portended dooms and auspices. Weary, he closed his eyes again, until the sound of high heels punched into the thick turf pulled them open. Rachelle stumbled toward him in a silver-mesh dress that troubled her ankles, decollétage dusted with a micaceous powder, as though she had narrowly avoided a minor industrial accident. It shimmered with the heaving of her chest, and she swayed as though with the passage of some toiling swell, sweat already polishing her face and neck.
“We're going somewhere private. We need to talk.” she began, coming to a halt before the lounge, her voice too loud and eyes held wide. Tottering slightly with the tilt of her horizon, she smirked and slumped down on the grass. William's gaze returned to the sky. In the pinched midst of her expression Rachelle resembled her progenitor to a startling degree. “Just cut the crap, Wil-liam... we both know why you brought me out here. My god, why am I even talking to you?"
“Rachelle... you're right. I don't deserve you." he murmured. For a moment she softened, then bristled. "Go back inside and huff some more glue and have a rainbow party or whatever it is young people do today. It's easier to make your own fun than it is to suck it out of someone else.” He concluded his inelegant appeal and closed his eyes again. Her voice assumed a creaking, infantile tone laden with skewed menace.
“You’re not making fun of me are you, because you can't do that and still think everything's okay with us..." She struggled to her feet and almost toppled sideways in her haste to hoist her skirt over her thighs, straddling the lounge, chuckling to herself until he took her importuning hands in both his own and held them still, insisting on her attention.
“Rachelle... listen to me. If you bomb her show, Opal will have a fucking core failure and start auctioning your organs online.”
"I don't give a shit, okay? All I want is f..."
“Okay... I’m just going to say this out loud. I thought you might have known, and it's been bothering me that you don't." he sighed. "Opal’s a vampyre... I mean a real one, you know... bad teeth, no UV... she's a nasty, baby-munching talking corpse, as evil as they come and that's really fucking saying something, and if you don’t watch your back she’ll end up bleeding you out over a bucket, so don't flip her off too many times... they’re always hungry."
"Why are you always trying to control me with your bullshit? Do you really fucking think I don't know she's an energy vampyre? Harvey told me that..." Her hands turned to fists as she grasped his T-shirt and pushed him hard against the canvas. “Opal can go fuck herself... I'm going up there and she’s gonna find out she's not the only one who knows how to work a fucking microphone.”
"Please don't do that..."
Rachelle's shoulders sagged and her head dropped to what might have seemed a coquettish angle, had her stare submitted to the same moderation.
"Oh baby... you don't want me to?" She shuffled back and begun struggling with his jeans, tongue curling over her top lip. “I know what you're looking for." Rachelle cupped a hand over his mouth. "Shhh baby..."
To Opal’s increasing displeasure, Edward had ignored her instruction to attend the circle of buyers corralled upon the balcony. They represented the closely-guarded apex of her stable of patrons and collectors, a fissile mix that required decisive handling if it was not to split like some temperamental emulsion; widowed matrons, their plicated skin weeping falls of diamonds, brokers who could not be weaned from their phones to choose between the drinks they were plied with and predatory designers who rearranged the many homes of their clientele with ruthless biannual pedantry. Opal devoted her own attentions to a middleweight Ukrainian oil baron who had professed a desire to pack a shipping container with the work of her ascendant conceptual names in order to annoy his even wealthier father in Kyiv, who favoured early Sérves. Alcohol had brought a high pink shine to his face; he did not seem to be able to prevent himself from peering over his shoulder into the night, as though someone were calling him from that direction.
“Look, there..." he chuckled finally. "I think is hooker...”
Edward and Opal turned simultaneously, roused by the portentous nature of the remark. Drawn by the promise of vulgarity, the crowd massed against the balustrade. Approximately twenty metres distant, and more visible than not due to the nature of both her apparel and uninhibited theatrics, Rachelle attempted to wrest gratification from William’s stubborn flesh, her dress flashing like the side of a fish against the darkness, the tableau rendered grotesque by the grim flourishes of rapture even in its unmistaken absence. At the side of the house a pane cracked in the door that Edward threw back against the wall as he strode onto the lawn toward them. Rachelle cried out and struggled free of William, losing her shoes and screaming as she fled toward the trees. The latter sighed and buckled his trousers.
“Thanks for the save, but I'm over eighteen.” he murmured.
“So is your audience.” Edward snarled. William fished around for his cigarettes in expectation of an extended admonition, but his brother's attention swung in a new direction. “Have you seen Frost?” he demanded suddenly. William shrugged.
“Didn’t know she was here.”
Edward started back toward the house without another word. The stab of apprehension deepened while he scoured the gloomy ground floor for a glimpse of Lilian’s hair and shoulders, discovering instead the gatecrashers condensed into a smirking knot around the kitchen door, filling the darkness with their cold flesh. Light filtered underneath it in a slim, inconstant line, the handle secured from within. He could sense the vivid, expanding silence that pushed against the walls and smelled perfume, the new-suit scent of the pimp, broken skin and blood. Leaning against the door he spoke Lilian's name, but received no reply, and stood back to throw his weight against it.
The kitchen was thickly stuffed with the dirty, matte-red stench of savagery, its lashing shapes preserved by the hollow flicker of the florescent tubes overhead; one had given out, its housing crushed flat against the ceiling, the other smeared with dark stripes. The chairs had been swept out from beneath the table into a chrome-legged tangle behind the door, the refrigerator displaced sideways and resting at a heavy angle, painted with lightning bolts of red that had bled into the slick of milk oozing from the corner of the door, marbling the white with greasy pink. Two drawers beneath the counter hung from the last inch of their lengths, their contents lying in a complex disarray that flashed white under the blinking tube. Everything formerly stationed on the bench had found a new place in the chaos scattered across the linoleum, the cardboard boxes of cereal and pasta soaking up the blood in which they had settled.
Orb lay where he had fallen, on his back with arms splayed out, surrounded by a slowly spreading pool of mirroring darkness on the pied linoleum. It formed a dense, satanic gloriole beneath him, reflecting the bars overhead and soaking into his matted ivory locks. Lilian stood upon his chest in bared feet, her pale eyes fixed on the pain twisting his features, her floating, static poise at once weightless and transfixing while he choked on the blood glutting his airway, her forearms painted with it. Her left hand clasped a pair of scissors, their stout blades like something cast from a ruby-hued alloy, having gained the colour in the wounds struck into the man's throat, into his shirtfront and clean through the palms of his hands. Slipping over the edge of shock and subject to its strange array of gasping, spastic contractions, Orb's plight could not keep Edward from the sight of his assailant. A slicing whine rang in their ears, the shrill voice of a red stare. He stepped over the chairs and pulled the curtains against the garden.
A blackening bruise encircled Lilian's neck where it had been impressed by a throttling grasp, developing on her skin like a darkroom image. The dark, drenched satin of her dress hung about her in a slack embrace; slowly, almost imperceptibly, whatever held her began to wane with the sound in their ears and she wavered like flame, shoulders sinking as she listed toward the counter, forcing him to catch her arm. A neat line of her own blood divided her chin where it ventured from the deep split in her lip. He eased the scissors from her grasp. Freed of them, she stood under her own volition, the colour of her eyes consumed by bloated, staring pupils that were the fearsome hallmark of her state while on the ground her victim groaned and jerked. She lifted an arm and pushed it around Edward's neck, closing her mouth on his with a need that shared its flavour with her blood, whispering the black words that brought his hands to her and pulled their bodies down onto the table. He pushed her dress over her waist, grasp sliding on the slick, dark red it left on her cold skin as he dragged her hips toward himself. She tore his belt free and hissed another exhortation, closing her legs around his waist but the sound of her voice against his neck opened his eyes and caused him to step back from the table, where she lay down slowly, bringing her hands up to her face.
Wresting back something of his resolve, Edward doused a cloth under the tap, coming back to take her wrists and wipe the thick stains from her arms. Cold water trickled from her elbows.
“Can you walk?" She stared at him with dry, blank eyes; he struck the ends of his fingers swiftly to her brow, an ancient antidote to her immuring fugue, and Lilian came back to him slowly, looking from his mouth into his eyes as she returned. “Can you walk?”
She pressed her lips to the back of her hand, regarding the blood as though it was some unfamiliar substance.
"Where?" she murmured hoarsely. He dropped his jacket from his shoulders and handed it to her.
“Go up to my rooms and lock the door.”
The formica slid beneath her legs and she stood looking down at the man on the linoleum with the detachment of an incidental spectator, still feeling the stroke of Edward's hands under her dress. The soles of her feet felt glutinous beneath her and her head ached dully from behind where it had been slammed against the cupboards. He walked her to the door and pressed a key into her hands; Lilian stared down at it.
“I thought no one could ever scare me, but..." She spoke slowly, clearing her throat and the last words trailed off in her reluctance to complete the admission. "But you do... and now you got me cold.”
“I was never going to let you walk.”
“Smile when you say that.” she murmured, expression conceding an appreciation of the unwholesome sentiment, eyes falling to Orb once more. “Fucking cops are looking for him.” Bowing her head, she slid by him, walking through the onlookers as they stepped back from her. When she was out of sight Edward returned to the prostrated man and studied his condition before leaning forward and kicking at his broken arm, satisfying himself that he was as moribund as he appeared. Drawn like requiem sharks, the lurking presence clustered in the entrance hall waited impatiently, agitated by the prospect of blood so thickly saturated with the desperate, petrol-sweet essences of violence and agony. Their blank, expectant faces greeted him as he emerged.
"Thirty minutes." he muttered. "Clean it up."
The scavengers surged into the kitchen, sinking down on all fours around the dying man and immersing him in the dry, jagged sounds of the clothing torn from his body and the jerking violence with which it was disputed, addressing his slippery skin with their greedy wet mouths. The junior participants contented themselves at the back of the scrum, wiping their hands through the congealing, wine-dark puddle and grinning as they licked the taste from them. Some paused in their preoccupation to glance at the surrounding disorder. In the garage Edward pressed the door closed with his shoulder and stood alone in the vacant gloom awaiting their act of disposal, the taste of her blood still articulated in his own mouth.
In its extreme decrepitude the walk-in chiller at the back of the catering kitchen had begun to freeze champagne in the necks of the bottles still crowding it, a fact pointed out to Susan by a colleague as the latter departed. Hunching in her jersey, she shuffled in its frigid depths, hauling boxes of Pol Roger and Cristal toward the glass door. Propping it open in the hope of defeating the malfunction, she had succeeded instead in rousing the motor to fresh exertions and cursed it heavily. The thought of William recurred with troubling frequency; she huffed clouds of steam and paused to rub her hands together in an attempt to distract herself. The motor shuddered to another of its erratic halts, and she heard the clatter of the kitchen door.
“I’m not doing this alone...” she called, glancing at the room reflected in the glass before her. Susan listened for furtive activity, the rustle of a bag as someone helped themselves to food, or the clink of purloined bottles. Slowly, she scuffed across the icy floor toward the door, hands clasped to her stomach, wiping her frosted nose and listening again.
The quietude was broken by three small, deliberate sounds, the sharp little tap of something metallic against formica. Curiosity pulled a frown across her face; some element of its isolated artifice urged her to consult the glass again.
A small, circular face, depleted by the paucity of tones and contrast in the reflection, floated between the rows of benches. Inside its annular outline two dark eyes and the oval-shaped hole that was its open mouth formed the entirety of its features. Flat and disembodied, it was as simple as a child’s mask lofted on a stick and yet it stilled her breath and clamped both feet to the ground. She sought to drag a name toward it, framing possibilities until a match was volunteered by a glimpse of sickly, pliant gold; it was Opal La Rue who stood in such purposive immobility, gaze fixed, her small mouth open so that she appeared not to seek with her eyes but to siphon the air. Her hand was poised upon the bench around the handle of a spoon, ready to tap another bar of feinting noise. The idea that she was the object of such a lure settled on Susan like the crystalline cold drifting around her and she eased herself behind the boxes, relieved that they were still numerous enough to conceal her, pulling the neck of her jersey over her chin to smother the steam that billowed with her breath. Securing the neck of a bottle with her left hand, her gaze fell to the white floor, ears tuned to any advance until the motor coughed and struck up again.
Opal sucked air past the wet walls of her palate, licking back the taste of prey, the girl's fragrant, salted warmth and the promise of the blood that it protected. Three quarters of a century had passed since she had claimed a first unwitting victim and the hundreds fallen to her since had imparted wisdom with the contents of their veins; the vampyre knew that fear and cold and prodding disbelief were on her side and savoured ragged, oozing thoughts that curled her cold tongue against her teeth. She failed to detect the presence seated on the counter behind her and William's stare, turned scathing apple green, met her wordless scowl with the same intent he had accorded the back of her head as he sat with his arms folded. Opal straightened slowly and looked around herself. setting down the teaspoon and turning toward the door. He slid onto his feet, stare remaining on her profile, and they exited together. After a while, Susan's wary consultation of the chiller door revealed that she was, to her bafflement, once more alone, the kitchen holding no sign of occupation beyond the stacks of dirty dishes. Rubbing her arms, she rounded a counter and leant over it to peer between them.
Opal glared blackly at William as they strode along the passage, desiring liberty from his determined chaperonage, but he shepherded her into the entrance hall and outward through the front door without obliging her. Rage had struck her mute, her glare clutching at his face as she slapped her phone to her ear, fury burning blue-white at the sound of Edward’s voicemail but he kept her moving down the driveway, putting out an arm to prevent her darting back toward the house.
“Paint a number on that little slut." she spat. "When I'm done with her, that is the only way you'll recognize what's left." At the threat he thrust her out between the iron panels of the gate.
"You go near her again and you’ll wake up in a fucking tin of catfood.” William promised as her driver drew up behind her.
A stripe of dull magenta had begun to flush the blue horizon as Susan looked toward the window and the encroaching dawn. Her shoulders ached; the valet squad had long since gathered their equipment and departed, leaving the house in peace, and she stood alone in the smaller kitchen, frowning at the distinct impression of stickiness beneath her slippered feet. Out in the entrance hall the stairs creaked but she was startled by the sight of Lilian in a black robe, her pale hair loose against her shoulders. She said nothing, standing curiously distrait in the shadow of the doorway as though listening to distant conversation. Her gaze fell slowly to the floor before Susan's feet.
“Can you smell something in here, or is it just me?” the latter asked. “I wouldn’t come in with nothing on your feet... there's broken glass.” She shook her head at the ceiling, indicating the blinking light. “And I have no idea what happened there.” Lilian remained where she stood, hands poised on the sash about her waist. Without the kohl around her eyes or the distractions of her wardrobe, the fair and almost gentle simplicity of her features were a surprise to Susan, the differences unsettling to her eye, as were the colours marking her neck and mouth. “Are you... alright?”
“Are you with...?”
“Edward, yeah. Whirlwind romance." Susan’s preoccupation with the damage to her face prompted her to smile darkly. “He's not the type to smack you in the piehole and just leave it at that. We're on the low, so...”
“Oh... no, I won’t say anything.” Susan promised quickly.
She followed Lilian into the porch, taking out her cigarettes and offering her one. Blackbirds had begun to sing in the garden like a chamber of tuning musicians as the eastern sky turned several shades of fuscine pink, the air already warming over the dew-cooled grass. The paper boy rode by and heaved a broadsheet over the wall; he caught sight of the women and turned his bike in a circle before the gates, craning for a better look until Susan lifted an offensive finger, prompting him to pedal on.
“It looks the same.” Lilian murmured, taking in the gardens with a slow turn of her head. The remark hung unaddressed as her companion struggled with its context.
"This place does my head in.” Susan confessed. “I see things, I can hardly sleep... half my brain is telling me to go upstairs and pack.”
Lilian took the stairs back toward Edward’s room, leaving Susan frowning after her from the shadow of the porch. Pausing on the landing, she leant in toward a painting, struck by the impression that the glass had conveyed in passing. Even in the darkness she saw it was her mouth that had begged notice, its half-circle of bruising already faded almost to nothing. She closed her eyes, dissolving something of the immuring unreality but her reflection persisted in confounding her, a thin, pale stripe remaining where the two sides of the wound had fused.