“What are you doing?” she whispered.
He blinked as if he could not hear her and pushed the glove compartment closed. She waited for him with eyes that followed the objects in his hands into his pockets as he rose, revealing hair partitioned into ornately-figured cornrows, a closely-tailored shirt of jungle green, silky black tie and matching drainpipes. He towered over the Jaguar as he walked around to the driver’s side, taking her critical gaze with him.
“You look... very pretty.” she smiled, nodding down at the car. “This yours?”
“Erm, yeah. Why not?” He grinned at her hesitancy. “Yes it's mine. Stop falling for my bullshit, Christabel, it only encourages me. Going somewhere?”
“Into town... well, I was going into town..."
Susan looked back at the scooter.
"It died a natural death." she sighed. He reached across to push the passenger door toward her, nodding his sunglasses onto his nose. She sat down slowly, the soft oatmeal leather cool against the back of her bare legs. He smelt like the singing green of his shirt. “Doesn’t Barbie drive one of these?”
“Yeah, but she had to chug a lot of cock to get behind the wheel... only cost me an eight ball and a hand job so who’s the fucking fairy princess now?” he asserted proudly over an ignition he initiated with wires hanging from the steering column.
They flew backward, screeching out onto the drive and swinging perilously along its length; when she saw that he was steering largely from memory she ducked and covered her head with her hands, berating him while he ripped back the hand brake. Their velocity suffered a violent check that dragged the long nose of the Jaguar past the gate post and the car shuddered to a halt on the road, Susan letting go of the dashboard to stuff her seat belt into its housing. With his foot still planted, he fished his phone from his pocket and frowned down at the screen while changing gear, setting them off along the tarmac as though flung from the arm of a trebuchet. Their impetus in both directions had dislodged a jumbled little world of debris from beneath the seat that banked around her mary janes, zip lock bags of pills stamped with stars and skulls, clinking nip bottles, dead electronic ephemera like wave-cast shells, a telescopic truncheon and one half of a silver bikini. She kicked it aside to make room for her feet and settled back in her seat with her hand on the belt across her chest.
The road took them down from the hills into a more currently affluent suburb, the houses becoming taller, pastel-hued and more violently palatial behind their stucco facades, dynastic driveways and gaping vehicular porticos. Susan allowed herself the view from the windscreen only as it became apparent he was a better driver than her worst fears.
“I didn’t think these things were very fast.” she observed.
“What Luc will do in the way of illegal mods for a lick of hash has to be seen to be believed.” he replied.
“It's a really big fine here if they catch you speeding."
“There's a tiny bit of heat on the plates, but I don't have a license and they don’t light you up here for minor shit, so ça roule..." She glanced at him again as they sailed over a dip in the road; the glove compartment fell open, disgorging a box of flavoured condoms and a CD of Cantonese opera onto her lap. “I don’t know how those got in there.” he laughed as he reached across and tossed the prophylactics onto the back seat. William exploited the opacity of his shades to look at her while she busied herself inserting the disc into the console, the dramatic opening strains of the first act bursting forth on either side of them. She wore a string of silvery glass beads and a blue sun dress that brushed her knees, sunlight glowing through its fibres and printing the pattern on her skin with shadow. The Jaguar lurched to a halt at an intersection and he apologized on behalf of its brakes, turning down the aria and glancing back at her frank expression of inquiry, which he obliged, lowering his head toward her. She smiled and pressed a fingertip to one of the scarlet braids over his ear then succumbed to the temptation to stroke the curiously satisfying texture, allowed to sate her curiosity in silence. His collar proved a luminous companion to his skin, distracting her briefly until something else inspired a single note of inarticulate astonishment.
William's right hand lay on the wheel, clearly delineated against the darkness of the dashboard paneling. She caught it as though it were some wary animal and held it in earnest, wordless wonder, forced to count his fingers twice to confirm that there were five instead of four beside his thumb. The replication of conventional polydactyly had found resolution in harmonious gradation, its difference to her own hand seeming entirely of scale. She spoke of it softly to herself, her enthrallment relieving his suspicion that he had appalled her; Susan's gaze fell slowly to his boots.
“Does it... do you... toes as well?”
“Six fingers and five toes would be weird.”
“Does no one notice?”
He shook his head.
“Not for a long time. Are you sure you don't want to hurdle the door? I'd understand..."
“It’s amazing!" Susan laughed. "It's... it's beautiful." The word surprised, then moved them both, and she refused to qualify its immoderation, dividing his fingers gently into varying cohorts. "How do you buy gloves?”
“I don’t.” he admitted.
Still astonished, she replaced his hand on the wheel at the behest of probity, but he could not refuse her wistful stare and returned it to her, watching her appraise its elegant architecture while the lights changed and the cars around them began to pull away. Susan enjoyed it to the exclusion of all else, and with his hand still clasped in hers she stared out through the glass, both baffled and enlightened.
“Do you really play polo? I can not imagine it.”
“Yeah... the Kurdistani dead goat version. Do you ride?”
“I could teach you.”
“You've got horses?”
“No... but I could get some.” Her laugh began to exceed the bounds of polite convention, the bright, hiccuping sound accompanying the glitter of the stud in her nose as she released his hand. “Blah blah blah me me me. What about you? Any fam? Brothers, sisters?”
“Only child. My parents died... car accident... so it's just me.”
“You’re alright.” Susan told him. “I didn’t think you would be, for some reason. You're nicer than I expected.”
The sun was a flaming disc on the smooth black surface of his glasses as he rolled the wheel and took the corner.
“Are we shopping?”
“I need some sort of evening dress thing. Your brother’s taking me out to dinner for some reason, but god, I don’t want to go and I’ve nothing to wear. He said something about reviewing my situation... that’s not good, is it?”
“He must be thinking about signing you on or you’d just wake up face down in the middle of the road one morning.”
“I don’t know what to say to him... he’s... such a...”
“Prick? Like the black rays of an alien sun? A brass-necked, bone dry, joy-crushing bastard? As much fun as a dead dolphin?” he suggested. “You'll be fine... just don't mention anything political, religious... cultural... or scientific... except the laws of furry dynamics or whatever the fuck it is... he's happy to pound on about that shit all day.” He smiled reassuringly as she frowned. “Ed is a fascist shaitan, there's no tap dancing around it, but it’s like... you know... not getting between a crocodile and the water. Watch his left hand under the table, though, I’ve been told about that. Anyhoo, what’s the frock budget?"
"There isn't one.” she chuckled.
“How about an advance?” William held up one of the credit cards he had liberated from his brother's vehicle, flipping it deftly between his fingers. “Ooh, and it’s the black one.” he laughed archly, sucking his breath between his teeth at the thought of its potential. "Let's make the fascist shaitan bust a fucking blood vessel."
Susan eyed the plastic and chewed on the edge of her thumb as she considered the gesture’s malformed chivalry.
“William, I can’t. It’s very nice of you but... I don't...”
“It’s very passive aggressive of you to tell me I’m nice without letting me be nice to you. Why not just slap me and call me a six fingered freak?”
She looked back at him for some time in a laconic manner that began to discomfort him slightly.
"You get away with quite a bit, don't you?"
Keeping his eye on the road he reached back over the seat and retrieved the box of condoms, placing them in her lap and patting her thigh with a crooked grin that developed into laughter. In retaliation, she took the bikini top from the floor and used it to tie the box of prophylactics so that they dangled from the mirror, swinging and striking the side of his head as they cornered.
Leaving the car in an alley, they walked together through downtown blocks to the edge of the prestige retail district, their destination a pair of looming glass doors studded with silver bosses. They guarded a boutique walled with a black finish like that of new French jet, its slick polish supporting a strange array of structures and merchandise united by a sinister visual affinity, their shapes and textures interlocking like questions and answers. Perspex specimen shelves, traction frames and complex, knotted traceries of surgical wire and large-gauge fishing hooks held small collections of ready to wear garments interspersed with handcrafted fetish wear, displayed like trophies cut from the gleaming bodies of mythical beasts. Susan walked past William into the midst of the room where an arrangement of sombre training corsetry graded into those fashioned from doe and ostrich leather worked with traceries of precious metals. Turning slowly, she found a row of featureless black mannequins entwined in luminous shibari ropes, their curious, extrapolating intricacies like the webs of drugged arachnids.
Behind a monolithic granite counter Lilian stood flipping through a magazine until she spied William through the displays and beckoned impatiently. She wore a charcoal-grey kimono dress, an electroplated bird foot pinned to its left breast, and pulled him with her into the darkly-curtained alcove behind the counter.
“Your hair boy said you were in hiding. Turn your fucking phone back on or do something about that crazy Rachelle bitch.” she told him while he watched her prepare an intravenous narcotic on the black shelving. “I don't know the guy who gave me this so you’re going first.” she added over her shoulder. He dumped boxes full of shoes from one of the plastic chairs behind them and slumped down in an attitude of languorous consent, folding his hands behind his head while Lilian stood between his knees. “Got a preference?”
“You know me." he sighed. "I’ll let you put it anywhere.”
She rolled back his sleeve, tying off a length of braid around his bicep before attempting to raise a vein.
“Who’s the beard?”
“Susan.” he sighed again. “We’re getting married.”
“You dirty whore.” She worked in vain to find his vessels. “For fuck's sake... were your parents even human? You got a total fucking fish arm.”
William plucked the syringe from her fingers, stabbed it into the crook of his elbow and sat back as the drug rode through him to modest effect.
“It’s like a pixie farted in my ear." She frowned and packed away her gear. "What do you think?” he added quietly, rolling down his sleeve as he followed her out into the boutique and nodded toward Susan. “Do I have a chance?”
Lilian examined the object of his interest in some detail.
“It’s hard to know. She can’t think straight in here... the shit’s talking to her.” She glanced at Susan again, leant against the counter and went back to her magazine while the latter perused the dresses at some distance from them. Slowly, almost stealthily, William slid along beside the granite and lowered his chin to Lilian's shoulder, his hand finding her rump and following it downward. She allowed the discreet imposition for a short while, caught between objection and her taste for novelty.
“Frost...” he whispered, parting the fair hair over her ear with his finger; a strange warmth slid down her neck like syrup. “Did I ever tell you about the girl who took me home and closed her eyes and got everything she wanted?” It was the very opiated sweetness of his voice that engaged her suspicion.
“You are fucking kidding me.” she hissed. “Now you want to go? We shower together... you've been sleeping in my fucking bed for five years and you only prod me in your sleep...”
“I'm a territorial mofo.” he promised. She laughed at the assertion. “Frost...” He privately formulated and abandoned several approaches. “Please don’t hook up with my brother.”
“I hook up with everyone’s brother.” she quipped, going back to her magazine. “I’m your worst fucking nightmare.” William leant over on his elbows and stared out through the glass facade while she continued to feign disregard, though the intensity of his misgivings distracted her from the pages.
“What can I say to stop you?”
“Something about his account being overdrawn.”
“You would comp him in a heartbeat and that’s exactly what I’m talking about. It’s already a thing... you’re thinking about it right now...”
“Because you’re fucking my ears with it.” she exclaimed. “It’s not a thing, okay?” They glared at each other warily, Lilian still flipping pages. “Yet. And go frot something else.” She looked at Susan pointedly. “Something that won’t mace your ass and call the cops.” Her phone flashed on the granite beside her, the blue glow prompting him to reach toward it and examine the messages idly.
“At twelve fourteen today, Orb the capslock bandit said... pick it up bitch... then something about... I don’t know what that word is... BTW, he’s going to put you in the river when he find you, bitch. What the hell were you thinking? Albinos are the devil’s work."
"Brian's a wigger, not a fucking albino."
"Oh, and what do we have here?" William inquired. "At eleven ten, eleven twelve, eleven sixteen, eleven twenty and eleven twenty two, Edward Lamb said...” The text of their exchanges fashioned his features into a vindicated grimace that he turned toward her once more, pushing the phone along the counter and wiping his hand on his sleeve. "I’d say he kissed his mother with that mouth, but I don't think he ever did.” he shuddered. “But I don’t have to worry about this, because you’re not into him.” She pressed her mouth into a straight line. “Ever looked at someone and gotten a really bad feeling?”
“Every goddamn day.”
“Stand there and tell me you don’t get that from him.”
Her milk-blue eyes held a curious blend of surprise and involuntary concession. He watched her tip her shoulders back self-consciously, pressing the pages to the counter with both hands in a determined redirection.
“What do you want me to do?" Lilian demanded. "He’s rich, he's a perverted freak... he’s totally built under all those clothes, fucks like an animal, goes all night... I can't sit down right now and that's the way I like it, so yeah... unless you can tell me he microwaves crack babies in his spare time, you’re shit out of luck.” William clapped his hands over his ears. "You knocked on that door, so step off my dick or it gets worse.”
“Are you coming to our party? I’ll send you an invitation.”
“The group show at the house? Someone already invited me.”
Lilian glanced sideways at his sudden decampment to the alcove behind her, the sound of some intense physical effort prompting her to peer around the partition, but the pale blue light indicating customer ingress flashed on the wall over her head and she returned to her station in time to see Rachelle Whateley striding through the doors as though she were late to some event in her own honour. Clutching the strap of her handworked bag she quartered the displays with an unfailing eye; it returned several times to Susan as the latter pulled a garment from the stand before her. The fruit-coloured fabric of Rachelle’s short summer dress stressed the faultless nature of her tan. She pushed her glasses back over her blow-out.
“Hey, mudflap girl... we’re closed.” Lilian told her.
Rachelle stalked around the display that lay between them and stood looking at Susan, who glanced back at her after a while out of curiosity.
“Oh please... if Wil-liam’s not here then what is she doing? She can hardly make the bus fare down here.” she snorted back.
“Get the fuck out, Rachelle. Store policy.” the latter advised. Far from obeying the directive, the statuesque intruder wandered toward the counter and set her bag on it, cocking her head at Lilian in wide-eyed, synthetic sympathy.
“Don't you have some dick to suck? I don't know how you find the time." she smiled.
"I was gonna take a two hour lunch to suck your boyfriend's."
"My god... when I think about it, this must be so hard for you... him leaving you behind like you were a sack of trash... that's got to feel like a lot of rejection.” Rachelle smirked. “You must have hated us being together. There you were, praying he’d make it past the nasty baggage one day. But it’s like bitterness is all people see now when they look at you...”
“It looks like bitterness, but it’s rage.” Lilian replied. Susan smiled; a small, half-choked sound issued from the stock alcove. Rachelle marched around the black gloss wall, standing with her hands on her hips and scanning every inch of shelving before ripping back the rubber curtain to expose the empty dressing room. “Wow, it’s like he never stops calling or trying to get with you.” Lilian laughed over her shoulder. “Guess we’ll never know what it’s like to be his special lady.” She picked up the phone, shaking her head as it rang. “Patrick? There’s this crazy fucking day-release bitch here trying to shove half the store in her bag... blonde, fake LV... you’ll love her.” Replacing the receiver, she regarded Rachelle with some satisfaction. “That’s Patrick, our mall cop and he’s a taser freak, so you better dust the fuck off before he gets down here and melts your Tijuana funbags.” Still clutching the dress, Susan let go of the laughter she had held tight to that point while Rachelle hissed furiously at both of them.
“You’re both mentally ill!"
When she had gone, the two remaining women walked together around the partition in their curiosity, amazed to discover that William had ascended the tall stack of box shelving and wedged himself between it and the silver ceiling tiles; he let himself down and hung from the ventilation grille.
“Did you hear that bitch?” Lilian chuckled, returning to the counter. “In Rachelle’s world, I'm dry humping you,you’re monogamous and she’s an internationally-respected icon. I’m almost getting why you fucked her.”
Susan stood before the register with a dress draped carefully over an arm.
“I can’t find a price on it anywhere... could you..?” The scan altered her expression from apprehension to dismay. William turned the screen toward himself and looked to Lilian incredulously, sliding the card from his pocket. “William, please, don't... I won’t be able to pay you back for a year.” Susan murmured as she attempted to stall the transaction. He pulled the dress from the counter, standing back to hold it up against himself.
“It’s got stretch. We can go halves.”
“You don’t think it’s... too much? I think I might be too short for it.”
Lilian laughed ironically.
“Ask the freak in the frog shirt.” She turned back to William. “And your name doesn't start with E, so take your fucking crimewave downtown.”
“But it’s a virgin... does thou leave it thus, a maid, still so blushing and unsatisfied?” he purred. She tapped the card on the countertop impatiently before reaching down to run the transaction.
“If he asks, I’m gonna tell him.” He leant over the marble partition and licked her cheek as she packed the dress. “Get the fuck away from me.” Lilian sighed. She swung a printed bag full of hand-picked clothing at him. “And put this shit on when you get there.”
Susan and William took their respective seats in the Jaguar, turning to glance at one another when she rustled the bag to attract his attention.
“She is. Bondage queen... plays both ends.”
“Are you... into that?”
He laughed as he grappled with the ignition.
“Christabel, you just asked me, your employer, to my face, if I'm a sexual deviant out of total idle curiosity."
"You're not my boss."
"Now you're completely undermining my authority." He shook his head. "There's something about you... I don't know what it is, but it does concern me, even more than your obsession with my sexuality.”
Susan took a hair clip from her handbag and pinned her fringe out of her eyes while he spoke, then leant forward, turning the stereo up until he stopped talking. They took a different route out of the city, William driving them in a scenic loop enlivened by his mendacious commentary though it lapsed as they headed back toward the house, leading her to suspect that something was still exercising him privately. She slid off her shoes and tucked a foot under her leg.
“Now you’re being too quiet.”
“I’m plugging a vent.” he admitted.
“Vent away, honestly...”
“I really love Lilian... she’s my best friend around here, but christ... I realised the other day that I’d known her for years without ever letting her meet my fucking brother. And now I know why. It’s happening already, in slow motion and it’s going to be so bad, and I’m sitting here looking at it like a fucking idiot, doing nothing...”
She seemed to consider the problem without prejudice.
“How do you know? That it’s going to be bad? It might be alright... I would probably just do nothing too.”
He shook his head, both hands on the wheel.
“I tried that the first time.”
She did not understand the reference and shrugged, applying lip salve in the bright yellow heat of the afternoon.
“They don't really look like the sort of people who need protecting.” she insisted, to which he shook his head again, more slowly and emphatically as he accepted the gloss from her. She lay her head against the padded rest and smiled at his obscure misgivings. “What would life be like if no one ever did anything stupid? Nothing would ever happen.”
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce