William walked through them toward her, hands deep inside the pockets of his black coat while she shook a flotilla of particoloured capsules into the water. They stood in stony dissociation, her refusal pushing his failures and deficiencies back at him as though he had grasped a handful of thorns while the birds chimed all around, urging them toward the use of their own voices.
"At least I'm not fucking crazy." she observed bitterly, glancing down at the bottle in her hand. "How long have you known?"
"I saw you with him by the gate, when you were first here... I knew then."
Lilian took a while to accept his despondent candour.
“So were you just like, shit... it’ll be more fun if no one tells her?” She watched him drag his hands down over his face and let them fall to his sides where they hung like dead white animals, wrung of all their customary expression.
"I didn't know what to say or when to say it, and I was too scared..."
"You told Susan though, right?"
She barely acknowledged the attention he paid to the pair of associate shapes she had left on the grass, her handbag and the little black gun that seemed to gestate within its private confines.
"All this time, you were my boy... you never did me wrong. I felt like such a judge of fucking character..." Lilian took the weapon from his hand and put it to her temple, depressing the trigger three times and smiling darkly before lifting it to his face and working the jammed mechanism again. "You know how this shit goes. When you're born to hang, you can't fucking drown."
Susan shrank from the spluttering shower rose, then forced herself beneath it, rubbing the frigid water over her hair and skin and hoping the white flowers in the soap would kill the stink of the Black Moth and all the cigarettes that she had smoked in William's car. She glanced up in surprise as the head scurled loudly and issued rust-stained warmth, like blood flushed from an open wound, the colour streaming from her nose and hair and ponding in her open palms. William returned as she stepped into her robe, shrugging off his clothing in an abject expression of his mood and taking her place beneath the shower. Lowering the toilet lid and slumping down on it, she sat in silence, watching the water pour from his chin as he stood with his eyes closed.
"Lilian hates us." she sighed.
“She doesn’t hate you, she hates me.”
"Whoever Nyāti is, she hates me..."
"She was born with a silver spoon in her mouth... it stunts your fucking growth. Susan..." She looked up warily at the sound of her name. "I said I would buy you a ticket out of here and I meant it. Take the car, my cards... whatever you need to get clear.”
Her hands closed on her knees as the offer settled around her. It was a while before she could trust herself to speak.
“I don't want to go, William. Do you... want me to?”
They gazed at one another until he relented, exclaiming softly as he wound a towel around his waist.
"Fuck, no, I'll have a breakdown." She dropped her face into her hands and cursed his reticence. "I'm sorry... I'm not trying to push you out the door, cloudcheeks, but what I want is the last fucking thing you should worry about."
"All I can think about is Caleb and Annick. Every time I blink I see the pictures."
William looked back at her from the speckled glass.
"My brother didn't have anything to do with that." He could not answer the dread she so plainly attached to the absentee and did not attempt to. "Those dogs at the Moth refuckulated half my baby teeth though, so er... jungle orthodontics... its not really a spectator sport..." he added, clapping the veterinary pliers together.
"Isn't that what you call the ones you lose?"
Susan shook her head wearily as she stood up and came to look at him more closely.
"You've got monster eye."
"Have you ever wanted me more?" he inquired dryly.
"If you ask me to leave you again, I will refuckulate you." she promised, the sweet taste of his blood prompting her to step back from kissing him and pick something from her lip, finding a gleaming point of white upon her finger. “A while ago, I would have rated finding pieces of your teeth in my mouth as very to extremely disgusting, but now it's just... moderately unsatisfactory, and I don't even know if that's good or bad.”
At his request she handed him the knife from his coat pocket and remained, deeply engrossed, at his side while William closed the pliers on a tooth and wrenched it free with a violent downward motion. He used the tip of the blade to prise shards of broken enamel from its vacant socket; the glassy, grating sound of the procedure caused her shoulders to contract though she remained transfixed, and he fumbled, rode the blade over his gum and expressed a string of rueful expletives, glancing sideways at her scrutiny. Susan relented, returning to the bedroom where she pulled a jersey over her damp shoulders and unlocked the doors, stepping out to stare along the hall in both directions. A low, droning hum made her look to the ceiling and a dark mass of bees crawling against the cornice, streaming in from a crack in the water-stained molding.
Dregs of mist clung about the trees leaning over the boundary wall where Edward studied the mud and torn grass of the verge, their details almost dissolved by the overnight downpour; a vehicle had backed off the seal and spun its wheels on the sticky ground before heading back toward the city, but the rest was lost, even to his learned eye. He followed the wall toward the gates before which he stood silently, examining the house through the iron bars. Turning, he eased his body between two black uprights, conforming briefly to their slight diagonal and sliding through without disturbing the heavy chain.
From inside the garage he could hear Lilian lie down on his bed through the intervening timbers, the smell, both sharp and darkly rounded, of burning opium fading with the cooling of the pipe she had abandoned. Susan had left the Jaguar's passenger door ajar in her haste the night before. From beneath the oil-stained bench alongside it he took a small cache bundled in black kid leather and laid it on the bonnet, rolling it out with one hand and selecting components with the other, fitting them together with an efficiency drawn from the carbon-dark machinery of his unconscious.
Susan waved a hand across her face against the bees that dripped from the lath in William’s grasp and filled the air around them with noisy disaffection. The young day still vacillated between cloud and open sky, favouring one and then the other.
"Where's Petrouchka?" she asked, picking fumitory burrs from the legs of her tights.
"Making herself scarce with Auberjonois... not that a dead Russian cupcake's going to make Kala'amātya roll the acid barrels back into the garage." William mused. She sat down on the trunk of a fallen pear amid the long grass.
"I feel like I'm waiting to be run over by a train."
"Avai'sahdi, please don't say that. I know I didn’t see Rana coming, and I punch myself in the head for that daily, but I've got my shitstorm goggles on now."
"I'd almost forgotten about her." The grass decanted its tissue-weight seeds into her lap as she plucked the stems and wound them into a wreath. "Did she not go mad at you for Gideon?” He shrugged.
“No competitive vagina. And like you said... crazy, not stupid.” Confident he had secured the lath amid the branches of an apricot, he began to blow the bees from his hands.
"Where did you find him?"
"Auberjonois? Acre... three in the morning, top of the north wall during a siege. I was climbing in, he was bugging out. He looked at me, fixed his hair and said... tu m'impressionnes."
She shook her head again.
“God, how easy are you?”
“I think we both know."
"How long were you with him?"
William reckoned briefly.
"A long time when I think about it... he kicked me out eventually, but we've been cool... except when he's being a gros con d... a macho cockhead. I rode with his crew right up til the Crimea.”
She allowed his voice to lead her from her more troubling idée fixe.
"I don't think you were born a troublemaker." she said quietly, frowning up at him. "Why did you have to be doing that all the time?"
"It paid, poupée."
"Could you not have opened a fruit stall or something?"
"The crusades were like an ATM jizzing hundred dollar bills onto the footpath... all the alujha cartels were into it, running crews down to Palestine and Granada, up to the Baltic... the first few were fucking disasters, no logistics, no nothing, but after that they started bringing in mercenaries to do passagium particulaire. The cartels would finance your trip and take half of whatever you ripped off, so it behoved you to be first through whichever door was getting kicked down. It wasn't political or anything, and I am sorry if I accidentally, er... slaughtered your ancestors for financial gain... but it was just ce qui se fait... everyone was doing it." He lit a cigarette and blew the smoke onto the bees. "Ed came in sometimes, but he drinks alone and hates splitting the take, so he was always a per diem bitch. We wintered in Alexandria, or Shiraz... I love Shiraz... hit Outrémer in March, then on to Florence for May Eve with enough money to party for the rest of the year. C'est super... ça déchire."
“People are still blowing each other up over that.”
“You and your neocolonialistic propaganda.”
“You don’t know what neocolonialism is... it's not the right word anyway. If all that was so amazing, why aren’t you doing it now?”
“Because of that fucking horrible time where everyone started using artillery but hadn’t stopped using horses." William closed his eyes. "I love horses.” he admitted. “Auberjonois fell out with the Catalans anyway... some alujha shit... they're always chewing one another. He bought a place in Gévaudan and started a home for difficult, furry young men. Back in the day when you started hearing the woods... hahdri á ijhun... you found a cartel, they jumped you in and you served for your keep. Now all they do is kick the shit out of each other, and they’re all in the pocket of that fucking bloodsack in Prague anyway." For a moment she suspected that he was distracted by sound and watched him intently, but he continued. “Gideon hung up his spurs and started ripping off high-end antiquities, selling it on, distribution. You probably weren’t even born, but there was this thing where some French archaeologists found a temple in Laos... really early Buddhist stuff, just before the war. As soon as they packed up, Auberjonois went in with a team and yoinked the whole fucking building out from behind the facade. It paid out so hard they could afford my brother for six months, to keep the American black op arseholes off their backs. If the local juntas had walked into them, it would have been bamboo slivers for everyone. That's balls of steel."
"You could do what he does." Susan contended, without looking up from the grass.
“Five fingers good, six fingers bad... he can put on a suit and eat canapés and not freak people out of a deal twenty five days a month. I’m always the big spooky gook who couldn’t look corporate if he wore a fucking suit made out of CEOs. That, and I can’t fucking work with vampyres. If you’re fencing their old shit, you need to be able to ignore a lot of holocaust jokes and sobbing from wall cavities.”
"There's something about him that's strange... that makes me feel... odd."
“C’est le loup. You might be talking to Auberjonois, but you’re never just talking to Auberjonois.” He reached up and slid his hand carefully into the busy, crawling swarm, withdrawing it with equal circumspection to reveal an errant queen, darkly blonde and smoky black, her slender length resting on the back of his palm. "La Reine." he smiled, watching her lean over her knees and study the miniature sovereign for herself, enjoying the moment of pleasure it granted her before replacing the pristine principal amongst her amazonian retainers, murmuring a slow chant to settle them around her.
“You were doing that when I first saw you... right here, I think.” she told him, to which William shook his head
“It was by the Du Comice.”
He nodded down the row to an older tree, laden with ripening, copper-blushed fruit. She waded backward in her head, gratified that his memory was more faithful than her own, then stood and walked between the trees toward the venerable pear. Choosing one from the branches, she turned it in her hand and watched its bloom dusting her fingers, her voice losing something of its melancholy tenor.
“I thought you were the strangest thing I’d ever seen. For some reason, this thing my granddad used to say came into my head, something about always costing the taxpayer money. I think it was my brain trying to warn me... I bet it's nutting itself against a wall somewhere now, the poor thing.” The soft flesh dissolved between her teeth like a spoonful of nectar while wandering, mutable thoughts of him painted her face a telling, sunlit colour.
“So... when I’m meeting people for the first time, I should make more of an effort to look less... what’s the word? Starts with D...”
Susan regarded the pear with an expression that blossomed behind her hand.
"Oh... I was thinking déshabillé..."
"And that. I think, if you’re going to be meeting girls, you should definitely wear more clothes... and never let them smell you... or do that thing with your eyes. The opposite of monster eye. Angel eye...” Her own smile vanished again suddenly, falling from her face with the hand that dropped to her side, and she turned toward the end of the row, the strange sound of his laughter drifting over her shoulder. “If we stay together, one day I'll have to watch someone else look at you like that, when I'm old... and you'll want them, not me...” Her hands fell to her skirt and she stood, staring down at the ground. “Whoever it is... they might not be born, but I hate them. I don’t know if I can hand you over. That just.. it feels like dying twice.”
“Christabel, I’m not something you'll have to give up.” Her throat closed as she swallowed air in a small, dark, half-choked exclamation; Susan bent and pushed her way through the pleached trees, stumbling over a branch buried in the grass and walking in a circling daze toward the house. He called to her once, but let her go.
She stooped under the dripping clematis depending from the door frame and stood for a moment inside the drawing room, hardly able to see past her own burning eyes. Despite them, she knew in the time it took to blink that she had walked in her incaution into a bind, as surely as if her foot had tripped a wire. Locked in airless immobility, her instincts cast around her for the source, the sinister discrepancy between its power and obscurity finally united in the shadow by the door. Kala'amātya sat in the darkness on a kitchen chair, looking back at her through eyes she barely recognized, full of golden absence, the lidless stare of a Hindu demon. A pistol lay in the hand upon his knee, the inelegant shape of its suppressor lending it a dreadful specificity. She looked back up into his gaze; its naked, transfixing radiance was gorgonian, destined for the same fatal obscurity as its victims. Inwardly, he felt his finger work the cold slope of the trigger and saw her head fall sideways against her shoulder, her death little more than a shiver under skin that slowly whitened until her gaze burned through the frames of that familiar sequence. The twining shadow of the vine that lay against the window drew its blue and violet cursive on her features; he regarded her from somewhere distant in the vastness of his own terrain, moved or unmoved, resolute or undecided, her fear of tempting him across its nameless divide conquered by exigencies of her own.
"Caleb and Annick are dead." she told him. "Everyone thinks it was you." She did not hear his brother step in through the doors behind her or feel his hand closing on her arm. When he could not persuade her toward him, William slowly interposed himself between them, offering his back to the judgement chambered in the weapon. "Did you do it?" Susan insisted, incited by Edward's ascent from the chair and towing William after her as she pursued him toward the hall, repeating her demand to his impermeable silence.
Finally impressed by its futility, she submitted to her companion's direction, saying nothing as he swept her back into the drawing room and out into the white glare of the morning, around the corner of the house into the damp shade of the elms. William kept hold of her wrist as he recovered, heaping whispered admonitions upon himself as she stared toward the placid waters of the swimming pool.
"I walked right into him... he could have done it, a hundred times." she murmured.
"He let you go."
Susan frowned at the unlikely nature of the assertion and looked to him finally as he straightened up from leaning on his knee.
"What does that mean?"
He shook his head, face still brightly fraught.
"I have no idea."
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce