R E C O N N A I S S A N C E
A dim, flesh-red light suspended from a cord swung slowly over Sachiin's head so that its lurid glow dragged his shadow behind and then before him. Heat was compressed into moisture; it gleamed on dank walls and dripped in a dense, sanguine precipitation, his naked body glistening with it, sludge swallowing his feet and sucking wetly at his ankles. He stood imprisoned in that boundless depth of solitude that trapped all dreamers within nightmares, each small notion of escape stillborn in his unconscious mind. The light swung more slowly still, both glare and shadows brought to rest; pulpy, elastic, spineless things writhed beneath his toes, squirming under the bare soles of his feet, arching and sliding in the ooze. Something brushed heavily by his leg, its greasy fur easing past his skin.
In the distance, from interminable isolation, came the footfalls he awaited. The gore-red light dimmed with the ponderous tread until the bulb gave only a bloody, enfeebled bioluminescence, like a dawn sensed from behind closed lids. The heat turned the gas inside his lungs to brackish liquid, drowning one chamber of his chest then spilling into the other; he bowed his head and felt it run from the corners of his mouth and down over his body. Like a cloud illumed by lightning flashed the shell-white flicker of eyes burnt blind by the ocean. A woman stepped out of the darkness, as slick and unclothed as a newborn, made by those same forces that had fashioned him; water streamed from the corners of her stare, its passage over his skin raising blisters in which blood simmered and turned septic. Long claws slid from the fingers that sealed his mouth while another arm flew back and plunged into his body, punching through skin and sheets of flat, striated muscle. He was spared nothing, not the ripping as she dragged a fistful of his slippery, trembling viscera from him and not the sight of her stuffing the coiled mass into her mouth, sucking it down her throat until her long neck bulged and black ran from her nostrils.
He awoke and bolted upright, staring into the darkness in his hunger for the sight of anything else. His brother regarded him from the chair beside the French doors.
“Fuck!” he whispered, rubbing at his eye. “Has no one told you about those boundary things? If someone’s going to stare at me while I sleep it can’t be you.”
“You’re too loud."
"You don't sleep."
"Frost is an insomniac.”
“No she’s not.” William insisted, shaking his head with his eyes still closed. “I’ve been crashing at her place for years... she snores like a fucking carthorse.” He could see that his assertion troubled Edward, but would not qualify it for his benefit. “If she’s still up it’s the junk. And the toxic relationship she just jumped into, with this guy, who thinks affection is something caused by bacteria.”
Edward received the remarks with uncharacteristic solicitude, and William glanced at him again, still acclimating to the sight of him.
“I don’t think she’s using injudiciously.”
“She will... you’ll freak her out and she’ll run for the spike. And who bought it in the kitchen? Smells like a hippo hit a fucking claymore in there."
"Frost v Orb."
They gazed at one another in silence while William tried to pull the details together.
"When did you scrub in?" he demanded.
"My involvement was superficial."
"She must be a fucking ninja with the steak knife."
“You look like a third degree burn yourself.”
“Yeah well... shitty dreams.”
“A problem shared is everyone’s problem.” Edward suggested.
“Kala'amātya, you're freaking me out with this pretending to care shit so... practice on someone else. Practice on Frost.”
They sat in the warm, expansive darkness that spilled in under the crooked doors and from the narrow breach that had opened in the roof, looking more alike than not and reflecting each other in their opposition.
"Rana, alright?” William sighed, to his companion's patient stare. “I don't know what it is, but I'm dreaming her, I'm hearing her... I can’t close my eyes and I’m too afraid to look."
Edward frowned, as he never did at a threat or at an insult. The name quelled their fractiousness and they retreated from each other for a moment.
“After I went to so much trouble.” he murmured. “Can I ask how this has declared itself?”
“Call it womens’ intuition.”
“Sachiin, you hear bells at the thought of food, and I do not envy you that. To paraphrase Ms Christabel, be forthright, and your angry ghosts will disappear.”
William was forced to concede the eminence of his logic. Edward leant forward and eased himself out of the chair.
A striped air bed repaired with aged tyre patches sank slowly beneath Susan in the middle of the pool, and she rolled off it, squinting into the sunlight rafting on the water. She swam to the edge and began mining corn chips from the packet on the tiles, smiling at Lilian as the latter crossed the grass toward her in brief black underwear, pale hair knotted atop her head, frowning at the pheasants dozing like outlandish teapot cozies in their small, sun-struck conclave. Dragging the lounge closer to the pool, she took out her cigarettes and sat down. Susan was reminded by its proximity of something and smiled again.
“Did you hear about Rachelle the other night? One of the bar girls said the whole place saw her having it away with William by the pool. I was downstairs... I miss everything.”
Nodding briefly, Lilian lifted a hand to shade her eyes.
“Don’t take it personally... Lamb and that crackhead stalker. That shit’s not anything.” Susan felt a warm, discomforting conclusion burning in her cheeks while she hauled out and sat on the stone, kicking her calves through the water. “He’s into this whole other piece.” Her companion looked over at her with an obscurely mocking expression. "I’m not saying it’s not weird.... he doesn’t usually stop to like, emote on his way up a skirt.”
“He's... it's nothing." Susan sighed, rolling up the bag of chips and smoothing the plastic across her leg. "He does it to everyone. We get on alright, but there’s... I don't know... so much...”
“Irregularity?” Lilian suggested. “Once you go freak, you don't go back, but then you’re stuck with all the fucking freaks in freakytown. Lucky the sex is great, because there's no fucking utilities." she added, dropping her chin as she frowned at the house. “But fuck it... I'm not gonna sell you someone who cage-fights for drug money.” Susan’s mouth fell open. “Google El Resto del Mundo... that’s his cage name." Lilian smirked. She settled back into the lounge. “Regularity is fine... don’t sweat it. I'll get him to quit humping your leg.”
The notion that Lilian had taken her dismay somehow to heart crept up on Susan and she qualified it cautiously, chipping at the blue polish on her thumbnail.
“It’s not... I do like him. He's... strangely lovely, actually. But I don't think I should, for some reason. I just... I don't know."
"Who the hell does?"
“Oh yeah... there she is, it’s the blonde...” Trent related, peering into the rear portion of the Lamb estate with field glasses as Lilian lay back on the lounge. A stridulating cicada swung low over Josephine’s head, weaving through the air that weltered above them in a desperate attempt to elude a squad of sparrows. She scratched at her neck where the heat worked on the crisp new fibres of her shirt collar. “What she don’t know aint hurting her." he snorted to her silent disapproval. "The tech guys got a wire on the beamer... they say the dark one puts her over the hood and gives it to her eight ways to fuckin Sunday.” He waved the flies away from his face. "Wouldn't mind a piece of that myself."
Josephine looked up from the intercepts she had been studying as Nathaniel Shaw climbed the hill and came to a halt in the shade of the Range Rover, taking a moment to adjust his watch.
"Shaw... Trent." she murmured, by way of introduction. The two men looked one another over with a similar degree of distaste.
"What y' might call a consultant." Trent assured him. "Fuckin Admin, and fuckin O'Connor." He leant out to spit onto the ground beside Shaw's calfskin derbies. "Shiny-assed bastard. He's the dipshit who fired off that unit that got chunked in France... unsupported, no intel... guess I called that one right. Fuckin orangutan could've called it." he sneered to himself.
“We need an ID on the women." Josephine informed them.
"I'll take a run at both females as soon as there's a solid window. Has there been a decision about letting the local PD in on the two plantation Does?” Shaw inquired.
“O’Connor don’t want to risk it. They were a few weeks dead anyway, one had his head just about popped right off, the other might’ve been female but they couldn’t say from lookin at it...” Trent related from behind the binoculars. "These assholes don't get pinched anyways.”
Josephine lifted a bottle of water to her lips, its contents heated to an unpleasant degree and tainted by the taste of plastic, closing her eyes against the glare.
"Anything more I should know?" the newcomer asked.
“Sub One comes and goes, jumps the country on twelve different IDs, goes through the hubs then we lose him. He's back, three to eight days later. That's what he did in town, that's what he's doing now. Sub Two's interactions look like buckshot at thirty metres... too many unknowns, far more than we could ever watch, so whatever he's doing is still his own business."
Shaw raised his own binoculars to his face, completing a sweep of the park with its great spread of tranquil deciduous shade and glittering pool. Another woman appeared from behind the corner of the building, taking a seat on the grass beside the sun lounge with a bag of convenience food. She wore a short dress in a faded cotton print over the dark, damp underwear that she had swum in and her posture devolved into careless repose. Trent trained his scope on her.
“Who we got here? Nice titties.”
“Resident maid.” Josephine stated, looking back to Shaw, who had finally removed his sunglasses. She saw that his eyes were a lucky shade of dappled olive, and that he used them strategically.
"Related chatter." she admitted.
"Encrypted?" Her hand rose to the edge of the laptop screen in an instinctive desire to close it against his inspection.
"They don't get into much on the wire and it's Sanskrit when they do."
"You can read that?" Shaw chuckled as he walked out into the sunlight, shaking his head to himself. “I’ll be dropping updates three times a day.” He offered his hand and she shook it without looking back at him.
“Better get your ass up and go check in. ” Trent reminded him. “You don’t get to un-fuck shit like this.”
Shaw replaced his glasses and began checking his phone messages, condemning Trent's injunction to oblivion before heading off down the access trail toward his own concealed vehicle. They followed him with their binoculars to his park on the verge east of the gates, the blameless ease of his admission steeped in unreality. Almost with Shaw’s removal around the far side of the house, the red Jaguar convertible departed the drive with two of its habitués.
"The dark one’s come casual." Trent grunted. "Redhead always looks like some crazy shitbird, but he don’t. Something’s up.” Josephine lifted her glasses once more from the hood, but the Jaguar slid out of sight around a bend.
William leant back against the slim trunk of the fir he had ascended, his bare feet gripping the branch he had entrusted with his weight, and peered down from the crown of the hill where the sombre plantation trees met the scrubby wilding growth clothing its margins. They had settled some hundred yards uphill from the party clustered about the Range Rover, having climbed to the position on foot. In a neighbouring tree his brother found his own vantage while William surveyed their surveyors with a number of abstracted frowns and head-turns, attempting to catch what they were saying on the breeze.
“She’s right about not being able to evaluate us against a simple deviant human model.” Edward remarked.
“Tweedle Dum thinks we’re undead beatnik homersexual dope fiends.”
“Sounds like they're tapping your car.”
William smiled across at him.
“Where'd you put Orb? You're fucking lucky Frost can keep her mouth shut.”
“Her intellect defies the cognitive paucity generally attributed to individuals of her particular tonsorial orientation.”
"Lo siento, no hablo pendejo." The furniture-polish scent of the foliage beneath them was broadcast by the afternoon, lending its colour to the cicadas' song. “Christabel found blood in the kitchen again, but she’s cool about it... I told her it was a hipster fight.”
“You're lucky too.” said Edward.
“If she continues to mind her own business you won't have to drive her out to the plantation.”
“How can you be so evil on a day like this? And fuck you about Susan... if you’ve dragged Frost back to the swamp, I get to have a girlfriend too.” The lack of audible response annoyed him. “A whole few weeks with you and she’s into federal heat... what’s it going to be for your six month anniversary? Home invasion bloodbath? Three day SWAT siege?” he complained, extricating the sleeve of his T-shirt from a snagging twig. “You should have parted out that shitty pimp before he swung at her.”
“You should have cleared putting Opal out with me.”
“She was about to suplex Christabel in the coolstore. I made an executive decision.” William muttered, knowing his brother would not defend such a fundamental breach of his own hospitality. “And you can tell that hoary trout if she darkens the fucking door again it’s chick chick boom o’clock.”
“That doesn’t get you off the hook for inviting nightcrawlers to her show.”
“I didn’t... they were Siobhan’s peeps. It's vampiro en vampiro, chico... they're all spitting on La Rue's grave and angry dancing over her sucking up to the Prague gestapo. Didn't you get the why no other bloodsack can ever cockblock me or tell me what the fuck to do speech down at the Moth? I’ve been getting it for six months.”
They fell silent, watching the pair below. Edward was puzzled by the man’s concerted interest in the rear of the house, unable to see past its gable. William had a better angle.
“You’re not going to like this. Frost’s gone commando by the pool.” He looked back at Edward with a smile until the latter reached out and attempted to dislodge him, tugging the crown of the tree toward himself and threatening William with violence. He laughed as he clung to the listing fir with both hands. "I've seen it all before anyway."
“Avert your eyes.”
“Like I’m going to do that.” William scooted around the tree and stood out of reach, putting his hands together and making a winding motion that hoisted a middle finger; Edward let go of the branch and it whipped back hard into his brother's face.
Trent lingered over the enticing panorama until he set down his glasses and reached for a camera case, shouldering the kit and setting off down the hill. Josephine was forced to jog to catch him up.
“I can’t leave my post.” she complained.
“I’m gonna get myself some shots.” he chuckled. “Some of the intel guys got a OFP website and this shit here’s gold.” He jumped down onto the tarmac across the road from the estate.
Brushing off his jeans as he emerged from the saplings, William still chuckled to himself, staggering sideways when Edward pushed past toward the back of the unmanned vehicle. Its twin doors proved not only unsecured but ajar; William made for the front seat, where he yanked open the glove box. They passed a short while in their respective inquiries.
“They’ve got a trace on my car.” Edward muttered.
“I don't know how long someone can monitor your activities before needing to throw themselves off a fucking bridge, but they must be getting close. ” William smiled. "I thought the hot guy was sweeping our rides."
"Hand-held units won't pick up this system." His brother appeared beside him and reached under the seat, pulling out the laptop and resting it on the floor of the foot well, where he brought up the recent files.
“Anything in the house?”
“Nothing monitored from here.” They sat in critical silence while Edward made progress through the data. “They’ve got audio.” he said slowly.
“You’re shitting me. Where?” His companion's expression gave him a clue. “Oh. Ohhh...” William smirked. "Awkward. If you’re going to abuse the beamer, maybe turn the radio up first.”
“Music kills the mood.” Edward murmured, taking the computer to the rear of the vehicle. William emitted a small shriek of horror.
"If I never hear those words again it'll be too soon. But what the fuck about Opal? I know she’s been jumping on your neck about those euroturds and their ghetto masterplan... what are you going to do when they roll in? Let her negotiate a package?”
“What do you suggest? A single-idiot defensive initiative?”
“How about not playing for the evil empire just because it's paying out?" William launched into an impassioned denunciation, condemning everyone involved with such vehemence that he did not perceive Edward shaking his head slowly at his vituperation. “You sneaky shaitan." he declared, interrupting himself. "You fucking had me going.”
“Talk to Auberjonois about them. How is Papa Gâteau?"
“I don’t want to call him. We’re sort of... not cool.”
“Who do I have to thank for shutting the other up?”
"Elif air ab tizak. Hey woah... code brown.” Pausing upon opening a binder full of photographs, William discovered it contained a reference image of every visitor to the estate since their occupation, some taken during the current round of surveillance, others gleaned from police and immigration files. "Putain... they’ve got everyone." They looked at each other through the seating. “What do we do?”
Edward returned the rear doors of the car to their former position, setting them carefully against each other.
“When in doubt, he is a wise man who does nothing.”
“And verily he is often an incarcerated man, or a fucking dead one.”
“They’re on their way back, so feel free to stay and test the theory. I’ll wait in the car.”
The orchard shivered with darting, olive-green birds and a loose mist of bees as Susan sauntered toward it with a bucket and a pair of scissors she had discovered in the garage. The afternoon was hotter than she had anticipated though she was not especially inclined to return to the house for a hat. Edward had made a generous, if hardly self-abnegatory offer of residence to Lilian and the two had passed the first half of the day relocating her few belongings, the process drawn out by delays that occurred both in his suite and in the shuttered garage. It had been Susan’s resolution to find flowers for her rooms; so engrossed was she in the pursuit that she almost walked into a stranger while rounding the trees at the edge of the orchard. Stepping back off the man’s shoes, she exclaimed and leant down to retrieve her bucket.
“Nathaniel Shaw, Trident Security.” he told her, producing a tanned and manicured hand at which she stared, still struggling with his improbability. "You’re...?”
“Susan.” she replied.
“Susan...?” Her expression altered again at his use of her name, its kindred vowels afforded fulsome treatment.
“Susan the housekeeper.”
His smile broadened, full of handsome geniality.
“Oh okay... good to finally meet you." He set his hands on his hips and looked around them, nodding to himself. "Interesting place... don’t get too many like this. Been out here long?”
“I don't really know... you lose track of time.” she admitted. He smiled so easily that the expression had been relieved of some of its effect despite its pulchritude. “Why do we need a guard all of a sudden?”
His gaze shifted back toward the pool.
“I’m just walking the perimeter right now." He watched her frown develop as she looked down at the grass. "Keeping you all safe, I guess." She shook her head at the gum he offered her. "Can’t be easy, trying to keep a place like this square. What part of England are you from?”
“You wouldn’t know it.”
“Always wanted to get over there one day... guess I never get the time. So these guys... they’re okay? I just found a new place out this way, so I don’t want to hear that they put you out for nothing...” Susan bent slightly at the knees, looking through the orchard.
“I couldn't really tell you... it’s a job and a place to doss.” He held onto her gaze in the hope that he could stay her, but she had already entered into a move to pass him.
“What do you do for fun around here?”
“I’ll let you know when I find out.” she sighed. Shaw stepped out of her way and turned with her, meeting the glance she aimed over her shoulder as she walked on toward the trees.
Having gained the orchard she turned south along an avenue of hornbeams that had once formed a pleached walk between the fruit trees and specimen plantings. It had long since thrown off all constraint and sent its muscular boughs across the lane, casting a shade that cowed the grass and sheltered stands of ferny, speckled hemlock. That someone had preceded her was apparent in the herbage crushed by careless feet and Susan followed them until the avenue opened into a clearing ringed by lemon-green magnolias, their quilted crimson fruit poised upon the fingers of their mannered branches. Amid them crouched a large and rotund silver structure, its thick skin creased at the seams with the pressure of the air that held its turrets and spandrels aloft in bulbous association. William lay on his back on the mattress-like floor, hair hanging over the edge while he read from a handwritten page. She stood with her mouth open.
“Where did you get a bouncy castle?" she demanded, dropping the bucket.
“Stoner party hire guy... four weeks for a short pound.” he confessed. Beside him lay a chunk of drooling caramel-brown honeycomb on a platter of leaves. “Don’t tell Ed... he hates plastic. I had them push it over the wall.”
She approached, wide-eyed, and smoothed both hands over the plump edifice, bending to inhale the evocative smell of its rubberized compounds. William tucked the letter into his trousers.
"Is it your birthday or something?" she laughed.
“This is my fortress of solitude.”
“Oh...” Susan straightened up as though to leave.
“My fortresses of solitude visiting hours are from one a.m to twelve fifty-nine a.m daily.” he laughed. “Anything’s better than sharing a floor with the beast with two backs.”
"I just want to hide in a corner with a blanket over my head.”
Smiling at the description, he made a gesture of invitation with both hands.
“Girls ride free.”
She clambered up, careful not to disturb his honeycomb.
“I just ran into a security guard.”
"Mr Shaw...” he smirked. “Nice piece. Observant, conscientious... keeps it tight for the ladies.”
“Nosey.” she added, wrinkling her nose. “Did you think he was fit?” He lifted his brow and nodded as he sucked the honey sticking to his fingers. “I suppose he is... I just hate security guards... wherever I’ve worked, they're the ones you need security from. I’m so used to them being completely dodgy.”
“His vanilla doesn’t make you crazy for him?” She shook her head. “His lack of dodginess is... dodgy? ¡Mierda, Christabel! You're a hard woman to please.”
“I know. Anyway...” Susan clenched both fists and sucked in her lower lip, looking down at him and making a small humming noise of coiled anticipation.
William sighed, rolling over, and they chuckled as they retired to either side of the castle, then launched themselves into the air, alternating landfalls pushing them higher until they began to surpass the walls and gain rolling views of the trees outside, arms out to expedite their ascents. For a while they were content with moderate altitude and its various permutations, seeking them conscientiously with each other's aid, her flights floating the flesh loose from her bones at their weightless apex. Susan flung herself against a wall then down onto her back, innards looping as he bounced her onto her feet; she shoved him face-first into the southern turret and lost control of her own trajectory, catching his shirt and exchanging it for his hands as he used his weight to draw them higher. Her dress flew up around them in a china-blue flare. On looking down she saw the floor drop so far away that she cried out, grasping his arms tightly.
"Tourner!" he laughed, letting her go and turning in a circle; she did the same, shrieking again through her hair as the garden reclined in a swooping curve, the sun's especial brilliance allowing her heart to stay behind amid the empty air as she descended. Three times more she flew skyward, arms spread wide, her eyes streaming, the air a sugared pink inside her chest until she could endure it no more and threw herself down in a state of collapse, lying gasping on the pillowed silver. William smiled and stalled himself, flipping down from the edge of the castle to reclaim the detritus scattered from his pockets. His letter flapped beneath her arm and she shaded her eyes to glance at the diminutive, handwritten French in pale blue ink before handing it back to him. He stepped over her and lay down.
“Bad news?” she asked, still breathless. He nodded. “I don’t even know what my friends are doing... I haven’t called anyone since I came over here... don’t know why.”
“Separation tranquility.” he suggested. The phrase pleased her and she nodded to herself. The sun lifted the loamy walnut scent of the shaded earth beneath them, the living leaves glowing a hundred greens and diaphanous cellophane golds, Susan losing herself entirely in contemplation of them. William wished that he could share in her pellucid mood, his own thoughts poisoned by the missive that had come to him so full of the despair consuming its author, her bleak sentiments recorded in the strokes of her anachronistic hand.
His ruminations were disturbed by a bee that began to bumble around the castle, circling close to Susan and seemingly intent upon alighting in her hair.
“Get away! It’s going to nip me!” she cried, rolling sideways. He held out his hand and began to speak in a purring tone; the insect buzzed aimlessly for a moment before settling on his wrist and sitting still, wings shivering. She wrinkled up her nose, regarding the furry miscreant’s apparent master with as much suspicion as the insect itself. “What are you, king of bees? Where did you learn that?”
“In Kham, when I was young." Her naked disbelief solicited him further. "If you want honey in the mountains, you have to climb up great big ladders made of vines and hair and hang off the sides of the cliffs, where the wild bees have their hives. They’re the biggest, baddest bees on the planet... big as a baby’s arm... attention deficit bees, and they know you’re coming... you hang upside down with an axe and hack away while all these giant angry bees come out and sting the everliving shit out of you, so you either come down looking like a sausage with smallpox, or you learn to speak nicely to them.” He pushed the comb toward her, watching her eye the broken, oozing mess doubtfully. “You do like it... you just don’t know it yet.”
Susan turned over onto her side and leant on her elbow, breaking off a piece for herself and attempting to blow off the grass adhering to it, before putting the whole thing in her mouth. The strongly floral flavour of the honey melted into sweetness on her tongue and a perfume in her nose, redolent of lilac blooms and chapel candles, its waxy structures collapsing between her teeth. She leant forward, letting a wad of wax drop over the side of the castle and helping herself to more. William ate his own from the tips of his fingers, watching it fall from her chin and darken the front of her dress as she lost control of the piece in her hand.
“Did your family leave when the Chinese came?” she asked. He seemed puzzled. "Tibet or wherever..." William shook his head. “So... they’re still there?”
“I don't know.”
"I can not for the life of me imagine your parents.” she smiled. He shrugged and looked out into the trees.
“I only remember my mother.”
“You don’t speak to her?”
“So... it really is just you and Edward...” Susan was surprised to see him struggling so visibly with her questions, his softly-spoken monosyllables fending if not extinguishing her curiosity, and she became concerned that she had traded felicity for contention. Reaching down into his jeans he took out the letter and handed it to her in a strange, autonomic concession. “God no, William... it’s your business, not mine.” she assured him. “It’s not that I don’t ever snoop or anything, but... I'm not that sort of nutter yet." He returned it to his pocket. "But since we’re on the subject of nutters, have you heard from Rache...” The vehemence of his expression almost deterred her from continuing. “I was just saying that you seem to have done a good job of putting her off.”
He suppressed a smile.
“He might never get work at a daycare facility, but Ed's death ray is a special fucking thing of beauty." In her enthusiasm she had left a large blob of honey on the side of her face; he reached out and caught it with his finger, smoothing it in a salve over the bridge of her nose. Her skin was hot with developing sunburn as he put the hand to her cheek. “You’re burnt.” he smiled, adding another daub to the pink skin of her forehead. “It stops blisters coming.” She touched her face, still staring at his own, and confirmed his diagnosis absently, inclining her cheek against the coolness of his hand.
“Freckles.” she sighed.
"I love freckles."
"Because you haven't got any."
He leant toward her and licked a bead of honey from her chin, his lips meeting the corner of her mouth.
"Come out with me Christabel or I don't know what I'll do.” he told her, the words breeze-blown in her ear. "I'll probably die and go straight to one-star hell, and you don't want that on your conscience... while we live, let us live."
A shadow fell across them. Lilian held out a telephone.
“For you. Some foreign guy with a dirty voice.” she advised. He accepted it and climbed to his feet, walking to the back of the castle to conduct the conversation in French. The intruder studied the inflatable structure and then his companion with a frown. “You got honey on your face.” she added.
Brushing herself off, Susan slid down and excused herself, stooping to collect her bucket. Lilian turned to watch her go, waiting for William to conclude the discussion that had degenerated quickly into conflict.
"That looked pretty fucking chaste. What gives, frankenslut?" she inquired.
"What's it to you, interruptingcow? Are you all done in there now? Need a medivac or should I just move out and leave you to it?"
Lilian took the phone from him and started back along the shaded lane.
Opal looked back at Edward as though fearing he would not follow her. She glared pointedly at the wet brick leading down into the tar-black mouth of a loading bay and waited for him to precede her. Its sickly rust and iodine odour was born in its proximity to the waterfront at the eastern end of Avalon, amongst the unflagged fishing and smuggling fleets becalmed at the head of the tide. He stood in the midst of the lane, gazing down at the water tonguing the bluestone. It had always impressed him darkly that the ocean could hold black as nothing else, wholly swallowing and espousing the reflected night. Drizzle like the exhalation from some gaping maw wafted and clung to their clothing; Opal hissed to herself and humped her way down the broken steps without him into the vault beyond, where brick walls wept slime and a tin roof admitted streams of water that soaked into snaking cracks in the concrete floor. Two caged utility lights beamed a white circle in the midst of the warehouse, steam rising from their housing before a curve of folding silver chairs.
A refrigerator truck had deposited its cargo of hungry bodies, still clad in the filthy sweats that had crossed the Mediterranean and Atlantic with them, a few clutching knotted plastic bags and water bottles. They were younger than the usual trade, uniformly teenaged or just beyond; three dark-clad minders kept them together, punishing intransigence with stock prods and the foaming mouths of mastiffs held on stout, clattering chains. Catchlights flashed in the back of the animals’ eyes as their great heads snapped at the foul air, the same dull flare written on the glasses overlaying the gazes of the more circumspect trio standing aloof by the truck. Their habiliment and manner could not have presented more of a contrast to the battered vehicle or its cargo, turned out with the heartless, faceless polish of a luxury-brand catalogue. Opal chose a chair and Edward sat down slowly beside her as still more of her nocturnal ilk arrived, complaining of the rain.
Siobhan descended the steps on towering wedge sandals, draped in red feathers the weather had pasted into drooping tufts, face screwed in a pinched moue of suspicion. It spat a cackle at the back of Opal’s head as it passed behind her and was lost amid its cronies while the smuggled youths were driven to the margins of the spotlight, their handlers using the dogs to push them, blinking and reluctant, before the arc of seated observers. With the prods they singled out the first selection, a slight young man who might have fled Khartoum or Mogadishu, his red T-shirt sporting the name of a popular softdrink in a stroke of horrible irony.
"So much better than the local garbage, my god... it all comes though Italy, apparently. How much would you love access to this every day?" Opal murmured, unwittingly rhetorical, craning her head toward the guesting Continental procurers in the hope of conveying some sort of acknowledgement. It was obvious to Edward that their superlative supply chain had overcome much of the loudly-stated objection to their presence, at least amongst those susceptible to the persuasion penned in the glare before them. The leathery reek of fear and slavering dogs dragged him back to a hundred such scenes of his own remembrance, from the dust-blown, mud-walled pens of oasis towns to the black filigree cages of French and Ottoman brothels, their inmates regarding him with the same voided expression. His own eye made a dispassionate assay of the faces beneath the lamps, imposing criteria infinitely refined by repetition. “I’ve made some calls on your behalf." Opal remarked. "They're more than happy to set up a meeting and I would seize that day if I were you.”
She leant out from her seat to examine a girl shoved forward for consideration. Having fled the Caucasus, she possessed the dark-eyed parochial beauty discerning princes had once sought for their harams; one of the gangsters groped his way into the spotlight and took hold of her head, prising back her lips and revealing her teeth as evidence of her robust wellbeing. When she kicked him and almost wrested free the guard strapped her with a short black length of hose. Edward tasted the ground with her, knowing every inch and moment of the cut dealt to her shoulder, blinking against the tail end of the blow that lashed around and caught their faces, the cold, remembered burn turning him toward the rain that wept in the doorway. The brindle canine lunged, seizing the girl's thigh in its mouth and wrenching her on stiff, splayed legs across the concrete, her complaints climbing into high-pitched screams. Opal sat back and muttered beneath the gurgling laughter from Siobhan’s contingent.
“I'm sure you're aware the police are looking for Ms Frost as we speak over the small matter of mordida failure, in addition to the recent disappearance of her manager...” Her eyes puckered into slits. "Astonishingly stupid of you at this point in time. So, to recap... dump the callgirl in a waste station somewhere, issue your brother with a trespass order and I want you to get rid of that maid... I don't like the eyes on that one. She was a mistake." Edward did not have to speak over the look he gave her, and Opal shook her head. “That’s a shame for you, it really will be. Expensive, too. I've never liked the police... they're so difficult to manage once they're involved in anything... but sometimes we must do evil to effect good."
He stood and drew his coat together.
"Don't ever come to the house again." he told her. Glancing at Siobhan as the latter strove for a better view of their dispute, he departed alone, glad of the empty night that met him in the lane outside.
Though low clouds hung like smoke about the hilltops, the evening was warm beneath them, darkness settling its folds around the house and garden. Susan watched William’s car along the road through her bedroom window, the Jaguar passing pools of streetlight like a fish heading downstream. She took advantage of the solitude to play her own music and wander on another of her expeditions, standing with her arms crossed under the atavistic taxidermy, then on tiptoe to smell the shaggy, disembodied hides and run her hands along the teeth and horns. Furniture and objet performed a slow, disorientating circuit, shuttling between rooms and floors as though at the behest of some impelling gease. The mansion stretched its legs in its owners' absence, its stiff, ligneous groans resounding as the night cooled, the structure settling like a giant in its bed. In its sedate remove the park became an untended wood and the house a summer palace, forgotten for the winter by inhabitants who had taken their gallantries and shortcomings elsewhere, its lustre lost to her amid the tract of lonely chambers.
Returning to her own room Susan sat beside the casement in her nightdress, the magazine she had abandoned lying open at its first page. While the house exhaled warmth during the day, sunset drew the night in through the open window, laden with the dark, pagan smell of elms and hornbeams. She got up and walked to the kitchenette, holding her hair back as she stooped to light a cigarette from the stovetop. Catching her reflection in the window she pondered it from both sides, then gave up, vanity exhausted, settling on the bed with the quilt arranged about her legs. Comfortably ensconced, she was reminded of the portable turntable she had dredged from the garage by its needle bumping against the label and convinced herself she could ignore it, flipping determinedly through the magazine until she swore and threw down her feet to obey its tireless summons.
Subordinated beneath the hiss and pop of the oscillating vinyl and the shuddering of the refrigerator cycle she discovered another sound, low and crisp and intermittent, the passage of animate weight through the rugosa hedge embracing the foot of the white plaster wall. She stowed the needle and stood in silence by the turntable. A moon outlined the crawling clouds in glowing white and cool perse blue, its slim curve like the blade of an Arab sword. Cruciform shadows lay on the boards in the passage outside, glimpsed in section through the door that she had left ajar while the restive sounds dragged back the gnawed, demonic utterance she had struggled to efface, the smell of blood rising on steam from the laundry tub filling her throat with a prickling catch. She swallowed hard, but was forced to cough once into her hands.
The noise ceased. A bird called an abortive note from the elm as though startled from a dream. The sight of her own reflection in the pane over the bed, its pallor and the shadows draped beneath her eyes administered a fright that pressed both fists to her breast; the shuffling recommenced, gathered by a rough, concerted foray into the body of the roses and culminating in the taut crack of a branch, its stiff thorns scraping the parched plaster. The window stood like a hole gaping in ship plate at the bottom of an ocean. Susan whispered to herself and crept onto the bed, the old springs groaning underneath her as she leant across the sill to dart a hand toward the casement. It was achingly distant, her bare skin silvered by the moon over a yawning darkness, silent until an arid squeal was answered by a heavy, rasping slide as something found and began to climb the unseen wall below.
She jerked back her hand and sat on her heels. Outside, whatever ascended observed the same precipitate silence as though in mocking imitation until she felt that to move was to give it license to do the same and pressed her eyes closed, turning her head from the brass lamp perched before the pane. When she leant onto her hands, the climber scuffed the narrow oak framing and committed weight to the crumbling black ledge. Susan screwed up her face and threw herself at the latch, the sill bruising her hip as she strove for it; a gouging shriek kicked off a tight, explosive rush against the plaster and as she cried out and toppled backward a white blur lashed up at her arm.
William carried two bottles of vodka under each arm, halted in the entrance hall by the smell of cooling blood. He thought it at first an artifact of the house itself, the timbers' oaken darkness sometimes exhaling a kindred note with evening, but the mortal scent lifted its face to him as he questioned it further and he set the bottles down. Moving slowly in the silence he drew the handgun from the back of his jeans and reached behind himself to lock the garage door.
The balustrade made no complaint at his scaling of its carven framework. Climbing onto the heavy handrail where it turned into the second flight with the pistol between his teeth, he jumped at the floor overhead, easing himself over and letting himself down onto the boards without a sound. With eyes and ears he scanned the darkness of the hall in both directions, discovering fat little circles of soupy red forming a trail along the floor, resisted by the tight, stout weave of the rugs where it had wandered over them.
"Christabel..." he called, discreetly. The blood led him into his own rooms, impressed in narrow footprints around his piled clothes and a red smear across the chest at the end of the tester frame. He followed it to the bathroom door where it was painted liberally around the handle. The shapes blurred, overlaid by all the other portals to that sight he knew awaited him, one hundred other disallowed companions, bloodless, beaten, strung or disarticulated according to the inexorable will that trailed him, the wailing of their kin rising all around. For a moment William stood without being able to command his hand, the curing blood like some dire, debarring seal until he raised an arm and pushed once at the door. It swung inward and halted halfway from the wall.
Susan's body had gathered loosely behind her knees between the white tiled wall and the end of the deep footed tub. Her eyes were closed and a plum-coloured bruise marked her forehead. The shape under his foot became the cord of the brass lamp at her feet, its base half-caved and spattered darkly. The pathos of her lonely refuge dispatched his faltering impetus and for a moment he could only stare at the arm she had swathed with black cloth; without a sound, she opened her eyes and slid the limb behind her back.
Her sentience gave him a moment of thoughtless joy, before whispering such terrible suggestions that his gaze darkened with dread and he murmured against them, setting the pistol on the sink. She watched him sink to his knees and cried out as he reached for her ankles, extricating her from beside the tub with grim per function.
"Susan... Christabel... this is important... were you were bitten? It doesn't matter where, just tell me now..." In twisting away from him she found she could summon no meaningful resistance, sitting spiritless while he pressed a hand to her neck as though it required his last degree of courage. Her skin replied on her behalf, as luminously warm as he remembered, well-served by the pulse that thudded against the heel of his palm. Unable to accept such simple certainty he made a survey of her arms and legs, pulling back her nightdress and feeling along her back and over her sides and stomach, his fingers finding unbroken skin instead of sliding into sticky wounds or meeting buried, jagged shapes. One of his T-shirts wrapped her arm, hastily and ineffectually, and he took the limb in both hands. "Is this everything?" he urged. Looking down at it, Susan nodded, eyes flooding thickly as she mashed her face into his shoulder, loosing a rough, spluttering sob. “Ishah i’sidati...” he whispered, lifting an elated smile toward the ceiling and embracing her in his inapposite delight, mouthing gratitude to his presiding deities. “Don’t cry, cloudcheeks." He sagged as she wiped her face and grimaced at the deposit her streaming nose had left on his sleeve. "Putain de fucking merde de bordel... don't do that to me, Christabel. Now I need a fucking paramedic."
"I'm sorry... there's... I put snot on you..." she confessed.
"Never mind." William sighed, embracing her again, then lifting her elbow and examining her arm. Her bloodied fingers seemed like those of a severed hand in their listless curl; he touched his own to their tips. "Please tell me you can feel that."
"I can, just... don't... don't touch it."
The objection seemed senseless, and she relented, at first looking away while he worked the blood-soaked shirt loose, then down at the fuzzy lines and clotted red of the lacerations. They ran in slack, skewed concert from the inside of her elbow to where they had torn free over her wrist, leaving the skin cut away from the flesh beneath and lying in half-translucent ripples. Another solitary gash had dragged through the upper surface of her forearm before veering toward the others. They had crossed a series of consequential veins, and three still bled profusely. Though they gave William little joy they were not the poisoned, blackening ulcers of his worst fears and he plucked a small triangle of broken glass from the largest.
“Put your finger there, and press hard. No, hard." he insisted when the digit slid off across her skin.
"What's the time?" she murmured, drawing his frown to the bruise on her head and the diffuse nature of her gaze. With shreds torn from a length of towel he contrived a peculiar braided dressing, winding it onto her limb like maypole ribbon.
"Are you thirsty? Feel sick?" he inquired. She shook her head while he examined her eyes intently. "No flashing lights? Can you hear okay?" Her skull seemed free of the pulpy depressions and slashes of blackened red that he sought so assiduously, stroking back her hair, but he leant in toward her ears and mouth to discount the faint, varnish-like scent of leaking fluids.
"I'm alright." Susan sighed, eyes closed.
“Clench your fist.” he instructed, adjusting the tightness of the final knot. "Okay... what happened?"
She spoke between involuntary breaths, leaning forward onto her left arm.
“My room... I was in my room, and I thought I heard... I went to close the window, and they were coming up the wall...”
“You're three floors up.”
“No, I mean... they tried to.” The little exposition defeated her. "Then... something... I think the window broke, and they fell.”
Again he allowed his attention to extend outward through the empty rooms.
“Stay here. I'll have a look.” he told her. Susan used the edge of the basin to haul herself to her feet, the white tiles bowing violently toward her when she followed him, forcing her to stagger sideways with her arms out. He turned back in time to make a lurching save at which she shrieked and seized a handful of his hair. “If you were a baby monkey that would be cute.” he exclaimed, head dragged sideways in her grasp.
"You'll drop me!"
"I won't drop you." She held on grimly as he attempted to unload her on to the bed, a dark stain creeping across her bandage and forcing him to bear her into the hall, her grip on his hair loosening only as he purveyed her to the stairs beneath her apartment. Susan sat slowly on the lower treads, and he ascended on his own.
An atmosphere of brief, thwarted brutality and the glass scattered across the bedclothes remained to illustrate her story. The casement hung out over the drop at a strange, defeated angle, the upper hinge ripped free of the wood and the lower rail broken from the stile. Blood lay in fluted smears across the sill, in dark, soaked rounds upon the quilt and spatters on the floor; glass crunched under his boots when he pulled the bed from the wall and leant out to examine the scene below. A series of gouges tracked their way up the plaster from the confusion of thorny, flattened roses at its foot. On the stairs Susan hunched at the sound of him forcing the frame back into shape; he met her in the doorway when she climbed toward him and glanced back over his shoulder at the window.
"There's nothing down there, honestly. Tell me what they looked like, while it's fresh.”
She shook her head.
“I don't know... I hit my head, and after that... there's really nothing. I can't see them.” she admitted gravely. In her need to fashion something coherent she found it easier to keep her eyes from him. "That night in the laundry, when there was someone outside... it was... like that, but, it’s... there’s something...” She stared at the moonlit window. "It's mad. Why would you do this?" Like chimes troubled in a distant room, aspects of her discourse struck him, tugging at the cords binding a great black prodigy; it relished her description as a demon dotes upon the final syllables of an invocation. “I know this sounds mental, but they didn't look like a person... I mean, a normal person.” Susan shook her head against her hand and wrestled again with images that fragmented under the force she brought to bear. "I had the lamp... I hit them hard... they had hold of my arm and the window broke, then... she fell...” In grappling with the events in sequence she stumbled on a homologue and looked up, opening her good hand toward him. “My grandmother had this old book, one of those... an almanac. On one page there were good fairies, the nice ones... then she'd turn over to the evil ones, with teeth and horrible faces. That's what I see.”
“White, black, in between?”
“White... very white."
"Female?" he suggested. She nodded, frowning. “Big, small?” She shrugged, then looked up at him.
“I... big. Like you. But I can't see any more than that. It's just... a stupid... blur.”
Standing in the darkness with his back to the cold glow of the window, William seemed to become aware of his own unsettling aspect and glanced out through the frame.
“You need to get dressed so I can take you into town.”
Susan looked down at the ragged stains on the front of her gown and shook her head again emphatically.
"No doctors. Just get me something out of there." she sighed, nodding at the dresser.
"Christabel, don't be a mental case. I'm taking you to an ER."
"No... I'm not going to a bloody hospital..." Her stare followed his own, even as he closed his eyes to evade its imploring petition. "Could you not just clean it up for me or something?"
"Kali ni'ah... poupée..." He gazed up at the ceiling and let his head fall to one side. "I could stitch it, but it'll be a long time, not a good time, and I don't know if I can... your little face would be looking right at me." She looked away, despondent. "Alright..." he groaned. "I'll try."
“What about the guard?” she asked wearily as he assisted her down the stairs.
“If he’s dead, he’ll keep, and if he’s alive, he’s fucking fired. Come on... I’ve got the shit in my room.”
She held his hand along the corridor. Words came to her from an almost wave-ridden distance, her own name, then the slitting, suede-like noises she recognized as the sounds of her own flesh opening, a tearing snarl leaping up at her and falling away. Susan stopped and tried to look down at the remembered face.
“You've got a gun.” she whispered. "Why?"
“Get in here and sit your arse down.” he replied.
With her improving perception she noticed that his suite was as hopelessly disordered in reality as it had been in her confusion, defiant of her increasingly token interventions. Leading her around the bed, he sat her down and took a pillow from those tumbled against the headboard. They both looked down at the blood soaking the front of her nightdress; she was gripped by the urge to be rid of it, loathing the press of it against her stomach, and he helped her up, walking her to the anteroom. In the darkness she attempted to drag the flannelette over her head and found she could not, the pain in her arm bringing tears once more to her eyes. Behind her, he bent down and took the gown in both hands, drawing it over her shoulders and easing the sleeve along the bandage, his presence beside her bare skin striking her at first as fraught and hotly awkward; she lifted her hands to her breasts but the gesture seemed so graceless that she gave it up. He lowered the new nightdress slowly over her head, the fabric brushing her lids and the short curve of her chin and settling around her. While he fastened the button at her nape the small movements of his hands fell through her like cooling embers, closing her eyes while he slid the tie from his hair and gathered hers to the base of her neck.
With her once more seated William began rifling the stacks of boxes, muttering all the while to himself in the patois best suited to the expression of annoyance. He departed in his distraction, returning with a small coffer bearing grimacing primate features in the timber of its lid.
“I hate monkeys.” she sighed. He placed the little chest on the mattress and sat beside her.
“I am fucked in the head for doing this. You need a doctor. What've you got against our selfless health professionals?”
“Nothing... I just... hate hospitals and doctors. And I've got no insurance.”
"If it's the money, I'll..."
"I'm an overstayer." she complained. "They'll deport me."
"Oh yeah, ça va... so am I, come to think of it.”
"Illegal aliens. I don't even own a passport."
"What... your brother too?"
"He's totally fucking alien. That's why he trucks with Opal. He has to keep everything on the low or they'll haul him off to dick dungeon for all his miscellaneous evildoing."
“Greasy, yeah, I know.” He shrugged, fatalistic. “So here we are, all free and brave and whatnot til you get mad at me and dime us out to Immigration." William leant over his knees, pressing his knuckles to his forehead. "Susan... is there nothing I can say to get you to an ER? Please just let me drive you in..."
"Stop asking me. If you don't want to do it, I'll have a go myself." she promised, unable to ascribe the strange taste of his reluctance.
"Alright..." he sighed. "So... how's the pain? It's bad, isn't it?" He reached back into the bedside drawer, lit a joint and handed it to her. Susan drew hard and spluttered.
"Where do you get this stuff?"
"Cay, and Sticky Gerald. Take the edge off?"
She nodded emphatically and frowned down at the contents of the box. A bizarre pharmacopeia was revealed beneath the thick lid; bundles of dry vegetable matter, small brown paper bags labeled with black ink symbols, tiny jars of liquid and doubtful-looking suspensions and crisp, dark wizened things that looked like desiccated fungi or sea creatures crackled as he delved amongst them. He took out a small white taproot, waxen and glabrous like the skin of an elver, and set it aside on the bed; she eyed it warily, shuddering at its plump little midriff and tapering bifurcations. William also selected one of the paper bags, two of the diminutive jars, one full of oily matter and the other clouded as though with dust, a crepe bandage, a curved needle and some glossy black thread. From the bedside table he took a hunting knife, from which she jerked her arm toward herself.
“I thought I’d just take it off at the elbow... we can get you a pirate hook, or you know... one of those clip-on fans.” he smiled, taking her wrist and easing her hand open; she closed her eyes and let her shoulders sag, allowing his voice to do its work. “You don't even have to trust me, Christabel... this is one of my few tiny little domaines d'expertise."
"I don't trust anyone." she admitted.
"If you fell out of a combine harvester in five hundred pieces, I could stitch you back together and you'd end up just as beautiful as you are now. Or almost. To my eyes.” He eased the knife under the dressing as he spoke, slitting it open before she could object again, the pain in her arm expanding with the release of its binding. Watching her eyes close, he got up and brought the copper tub lying under the hole in the ceiling to her feet in time to catch the contents of her stomach. She sat dejectedly, spitting a slug of bollchu into the tub at William's insistence, its potency stripping out the sour taste.
He threaded the needle with a discerning squint, pausing to press the curious little taproot into her hand, closing her fingers around it and smiling as her face betrayed disgust. The small paper bag contained a quantity of something resembling brittle, sun-dried insects and he emptied them into his mouth, chewing for a moment before spitting them as a smooth black paste onto his palm. Susan made strenuous objections while he added the contents of both jars to the masticated mixture but he caught her delinquent limb and brought it back onto the pillow.
“Don’t be so fancy. Spit makes the world go round.” he promised.
“No it's not. Try going out and buying someone else’s spit.”
“I’m trying not to think about that." she sighed while he used two fingers to paint the salve over her wounds, attending to each in turn so that it covered the raw flesh entirely and began a peppery chemical burn where it had sat longest. She sucked in a breath until pins and needles signaled the onset of a comprehensive insensitivity. Though he had tended a thousand such wounds in the midst of violence, screams and suppurating filth, the thought of pushing a needle into her flesh forced him to sit back and reach for the joint himself in an attempt to ease the torque of apprehension.
“These can move around a lot as they heal and you get abscesses, so..." He blew a long, tight breath. "I’m going to have to go deep with the first few. And I have the worst fucking performance anxiety ever... if you keep looking at me I’ll end up sewing my hand to your knee.”
“I have to look."
"Nothing’s worse than not knowing.”
He made a doubtful face and used his free hand to encircle her arm and push the wounds together, arranging them to his satisfaction before testing the needle against a laceration.
"Why do you have a gun?”
William fumbled, sitting back in exasperation.
“You have to stop asking questions. I’m down to my last three answers, and believe me, you won’t like them.” Her silence did not excuse him. “That gun is perfect for home defence.” Susan crept her sound hand toward his and held it until he sighed again and glanced at her, explicitly grateful.
"Go on... I can't feel a thing." she urged. She watched him lace the narrow rows of webbed black stitching that defined and unified each wound until her arm looked like a Georgian sampler, the work so fine and even that she smiled in admiration of its grisly elegance.
“Knowledge isn’t everything.” he murmured as he worked. “You're burdened with it... you can’t be blissfully informed." He leant forward and bit through the end of one line. She could feel his breath on her arm as the anaesthetic began to wane; he wound the crepe around his handiwork to keep the sight of it from troubling her. “Once that stuff gets into your system it’ll make you want to sleep, so I’ll leave you here.”
Without knowing if it was the loss of blood or his solicitude, or something in the occult compounds he had administered, Susan was struck by regret at his impending departure. She lay her hand on his wrist, where it served as emissary, her stare entreating his own. He blinked in the slowly lateral and strangely communicative manner that no longer disturbed her.
"Stay..." she said quietly, setting her arm across his midst as though to keep him. William touched his face to the side of her head, groaning softly into her hair.
"Christabel... you have to sleep this off, and I have to get out of here... there are parts of me that don’t care if either of us respect them in the morning.” He placed the joint on the bedside table. "For the heaves." Pulling back the bedclothes, he put her feet under the covers and waited patiently for her to give up his hand, which she did reluctantly, without opening her eyes.
Outside the wind slid through brass chimes, striking the bells with idle fingers but Susan opened her eyes to the certainty she had been roused by something more, lying on her back and wondering if her own snoring had disturbed her. Flame-like pain licked along the arm beneath her bandage and she looked down at where it rested on the palampore quilt; the birds and lotus-hearted palmettes, hand-drawn in indigo and warm vermeil, lay as they had been, their mellow beauty apparent even in the shade of the tester frame. Closing her eyes did not dismiss the perception of disturbance. As she lay arguing against it the quilt began to crease, then slide slowly across her lap. Her fist closed on it to no avail and her gaze followed the taut fabric to the edge of the mattress where the livid, half-stoved face of her attacker gaped at her, fists snatching once more at her torn arm.
The pain beneath her bandage redoubled as she lifted her head and found it clutched under her chin against her dream assailant. Susan cursed the encounter, knowing it had destroyed all prospect of repose, kicking back the quilt and rolling off the bed onto her feet. The faint glow of the night sky through the drapes drew everything beneath the tester frame in crowded silhouette when she leant down to peer into the void. Finding nothing living, she looked around William's possessions until her gaze settled on the stand beside the bed.
Its drawer came to her quietly and she drew the lamp closer to illuminate its contents; a book of matches emblazoned with the livery of a club she had been warned about, a keyring laden with a heathen figure fashioned from black wood and so imbued with menace that her delving fingers avoided contact with it and plastic identity cards shuffled by the action of the drawer. She chose a few, appalled and intrigued to find they carried a range of names and guises. The largest object was an exotic weapon she did not recognize as a katar, a punch dagger wrought with black niello work and scored with an Arabic maxim. Reaching into the back of the drawer, her fingers closed on something smooth, a polished disc from which the light flashed brightly, its edges exceeding by a modest degree the palm of her upturned hand. A kind of stone, she guessed, cloud-white and crowded with fingers of dense, pine-needle green, as smooth as if it had been water-worn for centuries and suggesting so formidable an antiquity that it might have opened in her hands and spoken with a voice as cold as snow.
In turning from the bedside table her feet brushed a large, squared object beneath the frame that she dragged out and settled on the mattress, sweeping its attendant dust from the palampore. It was a volume bound in thick green hide embossed with sinuous vegetation, its leaves of heavy yellow card all scuffed and stubbed at their corners. Polaroids tumbled from them onto her nightdress as she sat down with it.
Some were smudged and all smelled faintly of wine and cigarettes, badly framed and exposed. Someone had photographed William while he slept in an unfamiliar bed, face down in a dim room with windows draped in black cloth. Susan made out a blonde figure reflected in the glass and decided it was Lilian; she had recorded him unconscious and semi-naked, then scowling at her from behind sunglasses starred by the flash in a bathtub, a shower cap containing his scarlet hair, an inflatable dinosaur preserving a nominal modesty.
The foxed leaves held a collection of elderly, large-format photographs mounted in some esoteric order. From William's evasion of the topic she guessed the vistas belonged somewhere in montaine Asia, but could glean little else from them. Their aged monochrome held views of stony slopes and flights of countless, snow-dressed peaks so pale they barely registered against the paper, white-flecked rivers grinding down through gnathic gorges and scouring their foothills. She leant over each in her search for some visible focus, finding endless, scriptless pages of confluent landscape that slowly revealed itself to be the sole object of memorial, the sequence fusing into a knowledge of its distant whole.
In her patient foray she found two lone human figures, the first a young man; beside him on a waist-wide path stood a pony blurred by movement, its profuse mane almost concealing the sack tied to its back. The figure sat on a rock in modest native dress, black hair tied in an unseen tail. Upon examination he bore a marked, if not inerrant, resemblance to William and she lifted the album with her good hand, poring over the image in an attempt to fault the likeness. If she had finally located some erstwhile ancestor, the workings of biology posed more questions than it satisfied; frowning, she turned the page and was confronted with something infinitely more disturbing.
A single battered photograph clung at a slight angle to the middle of the leaf, its two figures standing by the stony footing of a Hindu shrine, its murtis thickly-dressed with wreaths of pale flowers. Both subjects were fair, dark haired and shirtless as though preparing for some ritual obeisance; one faced the camera with hands on his hips while the other stood with his back to it, face in profile. The sun had shone brightly on that scene, delineating features so like William’s that she could not convince herself otherwise, and the same light played on the second figure, painting the black, shamanic complexities of the pattern covering his back in clear-cut contrast. His unmistakable reserve, the look of fathomless consideration in his profile threw a choking coil around her as she discerned the small degree to which the characters on his back differed from his brother’s, since it was Edward who stood with such definitive indifference to the lens. At the bottom of the page someone had pencilled a brief remark.
'darshan, Neelkanth Parbat'
Susan shoved the album from her lap and was rewarded with a ripping pain in her arm that forced her to cradle it and breathe through bared teeth. Another picture had fallen from the pages and lay beyond the foot that she had drawn up with her knees. Its stippled Kodacolor degraded toward the corners, but William glowed in its midst like something freshly painted, standing on a lawn in a printed shirt and dark, cropped hair before the green drape of a weeping elm. His arm encircled the skull of a less statuesque companion, pale hand clasping the stranger’s broad forehead in an attitude of provocative familiarity that required no introduction. The man was dark-eyed and well-made, surely the proud indigéne of some Mediterranean state with his high-collared suit, obedient, sun-streaked coif and Riviera tan. Together they seemed a demonstration of opposing principles, though their ease betokened intimate acquaintance. The print would have brought a smile to her face had its colour shift not rendered it in the pastels of a summer so long perished.
Susan pushed the album quickly beneath the quilt as the door preceded William.
"Ça va?" he asked, seeking something in the chest at the end of the bed. She stared past it at the little she could see of him.
"When's your birthday?" she inquired.
His posture changed behind the intervening furnishings.
"I... scorpio. Whatever month that is."
“How old are you?”
The quiet stood between them as he slid the drawer closed. Susan watched him formulate an answer, the time elapsing between her inquiry and his reply ringing with an elemental truth.
“I forget, all the time.” he admitted. “Ed won’t be back tonight and Frost's working, so I’ll stay in his rooms, but if you need me...”
“I’m alright here.” she told him.
When he had gone, Susan plucked the captioned image from its backing and kicked the album under the bed. Its enigmatic subjects refused to be remanded or dismissed by any defensive exegesis of her own devising, and she looked around herself, surveying again the great heterogeneous hoard crowded about her. Amongst it there was nothing able to tell of its own fortune, nothing valued beyond utility or trade, and the pieces spoke to her in unison as though finally granted leave to do so. They were no studied compilation but the record of a lifetime as convoluted and unaccountable as its appurtenance. The pain in her arm became a metronomic rhythm and she sank backward, the canopy looming overhead like the great black footing of a thundercloud.
* Read the next Chapter *