“You got some kind of theory?” he inquired, walking with her down the drive when he had complied with her precautions. The warmth of the day sat in the still air over the grass, not yet displaced by the breeze that left the hills and swept down toward the city around midnight. Josephine found it difficult to reconcile the view from their customary vantage with the actual expanse of house and garden that greeted her in the darkness. Two pairs of boots and a tyre iron lay about the edge of the porch. She stepped over them carefully.
“I was called into a metro lycanthrope census a few years back... so many counters were getting intercepted it was threatening the data. Turned out to be scent recognition of the deuce gear... that's what was tipping them off, so we set up a new protocol. Cold showers prior to dust-off, civilian gear only... you get a thirty minute window before you start to lay down a solid scent trail. The scrubs buy you an hour.” she told him, flexing her hands further into her gloves.
It was only after she had been led along the darkness of the entrance hall, with its beetle-riven oak and the faded tang of lanolin rising from nomad textiles that she gained an appreciation of the atmosphere implied by the building's exterior. They stood in the door of the drawing room while Shaw flipped the lightswitch on and off, looking back at her.
“It’s like that all the way through. No lights, no power. No goddamn chairs, no tables, no TV...” Josephine turned to follow his manual directions. “The housekeeper's in the attic... that’s got juice, but not much else does. So right off the bat there’s a problem trying to keep up with ingress and exits, who’s here, who’s not...” He paused in his dissertation and climbed slowly to the landing where she stood awaiting him. “You smell that?”
"I guess. Something... dopey.” She stared up into the complicated darkness of the second floor, regretting the rustle of her plastic accoutrement. “You sure you counted everyone out?” Shaw gave her a grim smile.
“If that was One or Two they would have been on us in the driveway. The callgirl loves her pharmaceuticals.”
“Maybe One’s keeping her strung out.” she suggested. He shook his head.
"When they’re not in direct conflict, they’re interfacing.” At the head of the stairs they stood and gazed down the hall in both directions, his reference to their subjects’ private proclivities painting deep shades of aversion onto her expression.
“Xenophilia, to me, is... it’s unethical, irresponsible... biologically it's hazardous... I can’t believe anyone would seriously go there.”
“Different strokes. There’s One, and then there’s Two.” he said, indicating the direction of both rooms.
Josephine was first overwhelmed, and then appalled by the confusion of shapes and colour that passed beneath the beam of her companion’s torch inside William’s bedchamber, the room like the tomb of a heretic pharaoh, the air thick with the sweet, spectral scent of incense and petal-dripping lilies, burnt hashish and the final, half-spent notes of womens’ perfume. She fought the urge to place some part of her clothing over her mouth and nose to physically exclude an atmosphere so charged with degenerate opulence, producing a slim camera and taking four frames before retreating, more than happy to exchange it for the unlit hall. Shaw followed her, checking his watch. The glass eyes shining in the heavy beast heads on the ivy-coloured wall reflected her face as a mottled sliver of white. Josephine preceded him to the door of Edward’s rooms, urging him closer.
“Feels shady.” she whispered against the side of his head. He waved her away along the hall, tapping a knock on the door in question before pushing it inward and admitting himself. The time that elapsed while he cleared the room raised the volume of her misgivings; she dropped slowly to one knee to slide the small pistol from her ankle holster, listening closely, but Shaw returned to the doorway and beckoned to her.
An unconscious woman lay on a bed clothed in blood red silk, the bare skin of her legs and midriff glowing dilute blue in the light falling from the window, the deathly shade in keeping with the attitude of senselessness that pinned her right arm beneath her body and doubled her left wrist against the counterpane. Her mouth had taken on a leaden cast, as though some dark fruit had stained her lips. Though Josephine knew her from the surveillance pictures she was surprised to see how little Lilian Frost resembled her stolen likeness. She went immediately to the window and pulled the curtain closed, turning back toward the scene with her camera.
“Hypoxic.” Shaw said quietly, chancing a measure of the woman’s pulse at the back of her ankle. “Opiates.”
“Breathing?” He shrugged. Josephine was careful not to brush Lilian's feet as she bent over her in the darkness, unwinding a narrow sheet of print-lifting adhesive from the roll in her pocket. “If she was cold we could evac the body for an exam... ” she whispered, almost to herself. They looked to one another across the subject of their speculation, standing with hands on hips.
“Her colour’s bad... if you called it in, there’s a good chance she’ll flatline by the time they get here.”
Shaw frowned, unconvinced, and leant out to spread a hand before Lilian’s mouth and nose.
“I don’t like her for a DOA. She’s moving too much air.” He was surprised to see the small compliment of sampling tools that Josephine drew out of her pockets. She backed up and took a full-length shot of Lilian as she lay, stepping away into the bathroom when it caught her attention. The wall cabinet and bath were recorded quickly, as was the contents of the bin beneath the pedestal basin, tipped onto the white tiles and kicked into a small radius. Lilian's contraceptive and menstrual supplies provided little information beyond the obvious; she swept them back into the waste bin and replaced it carefully. On her return to the bedroom she stood beside the woman's legs and readied a silver spatulate instrument, picking up a hand and using it to scrape beneath its fingernails.
"You can't turn that in..." he warned her, the sight of Josephine's purposive efficiency redoubling his misgivings as she clipped a narrow swatch of hair from her subject's head. She glanced up at him, but said nothing, pushing a syringe from its plastic bubble and looking for a suitable site to introduce it. "Jones... I said you can't turn any of this in, so w..."
"I can run it myself." she assured him. "What is it about this that One can't get enough of?" she murmured, pausing in another moment of narrow, critical study of the unconscious stranger. "We watch this sub for four years... it never taps the same girl twice, is rigorous about paying for it, then suddenly..." Her gaze shifted back to Shaw. "Are you sure there's a bond?"
"They're tight. You can't get near her without him being on you like that." he told her, frowning as his attention was called toward the distance. Josephine bent and touched a finger to the back of Lilian's knee, prospecting her veins. "Jones..." he whispered. She did not look up. He hissed her name again, and then a loud, brittle sound turned her back toward him in dismay. Both intruders dropped into a crouch and remained unmoving as it was repeated, two and then three times, its damning volume almost gratuitous.
“What the hell is that?” she hissed in a silent interval. He shook his head at the floorboards, and then lifted his dark eyes to her.
Rachelle shoved the twin partitions inward to the full extent of their heavy chain, both hands wrapped around the iron. Swinging them once more toward herself, she stumbled backward, tripping over her own heels and the gritty surface of the road. A thick, bubbling litany of accusations rang out around the empty cul de sac as she staggered to her feet and kicked at her forgotten handbag, spreading its contents in a tinkling half-circle. Embracing herself, she screamed William’s name three times into the garden through the bars, choking on her own ragged throat. She wore a skin tight, gold-lettered T-shirt and jeans distressed far beyond their original intent, spotted with dark liquid spills and the remains of her last meal; her phone beeped a battery warning and she shuffled over to it, hunting out its silver form and punching autodial repeatedly. The face of the device dazzled her eyes with a charge of reflected brilliance and she looked up into the headlights of a taxi that slowed and rolled to a halt at a discreet distance.
Petrouchka tipped the driver when he wheeled her scarlet suitcase to her side, accepting it from him and directing her gaze along the streak of scorned belongings littering the road to Rachelle’s feet. The taxi receded into a long reverse, leaving them alone together. With her case trundling behind her the vampyre walked toward the gate and took the key to the padlock from the thick plush of her coat. Rachelle's advance was checked by her sudden glance.
“Don’t you know fur is murder?” the wide-eyed woman demanded. “You think you're moving in here? He can’t just do that like I don’t have any fucking rights... I don’t care who you are... he’s going to shit on you like he does... like he does to everybody! That's what you are, don’t you get it? You’re the fucking rebound! I’m the one!”
Her remarks failed to register in the grey gaze of the stranger, who stood looking at her from a latent immobility that reached slowly toward Rachelle and tapped her on the cheek, drawing her closer as though desiring to impart a secret. Bending from the hip, she looked hard into the glossy stare with its curving ring of sable lashes, the black holes in their centres the luring object of her witless quest. When the vampyre spoke, it was with vicious gutturals, and a slick flash of her teeth.
“Go away, piz'da, before something bad happen to you.”
Petrouchka took her time about the gates, locking them again behind herself while the blonde woman uttered belated, incoherent insults. Rachelle watched the vampyre tote her case along the drive and turned back toward the road, her cries of outrage devolving once more into the screaming of William’s name. Her voice rolled out across the seal, past the scarp of wilding trees at the edge of the road and away into the plantation. As if in answer, two huge, bone-coloured moths ghosted out of the branches into the torpid streetlight and began to float in slow, unheeded circles over her head.
The vampyre left her case at the foot of the stairs and shrugged off her coat as she ascended, draping it over her elbow. She peered into each doorway, taking an excursion into Edward’s studio and lifting her smiling white face to the ceiling, before returning to the hallway and traipsing onward, beyond a bank of windows to the little case of wooden steps.
She had not stopped to look into the suite where Lilian lay once more alone in her brumous stupor. For a while she had drifted in the pixelated, cloud-coloured space lying just beneath the surface of awareness, hearing sounds conveyed through air as well as those transmitted by the mattress, discomfort standing on the verge of firing movement through her body. But in her stomach active compounds still bled from jewel-green capsules and turned the slow recovery into a dim false dawn, turning her over in a darkness that was ordered into shape and setting her down upon her feet.
Around them and beneath the coppice wood of leafless, black-boled trees, the first snow lay in low, crisp drifts, glittering like milled salt. When she considered its perfection she regretted the drag of her hooded mantle, though with her companion she tracked a ragged precedent between the coppiced stands that had churned the white to sepia mud and left the smell of stale clothes and sweating desperation in its wake. Her companion took the large, vaguely lunar length of black wood from his back, drawing it over his shoulder. He slid twisted rawhide from his belt and strung the span, transforming the nameless instrument in an act of silent alchemy into the graceful recurved bow that he had carried since his service in the Eastern steppe. Thus configured, it was two thirds as tall as he; she reached out and took it from him, finding herself barely able to draw it from the stiff line it described between the two siyah, her fingers burning with the effort. He selected seven arrows and set them head-first in the snow.
Like a cowhand in a yard stocked with beasts accustomed to her presence, Opal made her way between the ranks of bared and semi-celebrated shoulders, past the shrieking dresses that fought so violently with the drab favoured by midlife creatives, who were themselves strictly demarcated from their younger contemporaries, the latter boneless and scrawny in their entropic knitwear. Their disregard was nectar to her ruling animus, if not quite so gratifying to that portion nourished by supplication. Edward appeared to have slipped the noose she had fashioned from the person of Leighton Sotherby-Aldrich; she found him in a distant corner beneath one of his own monolithic works, standing like a polar animal inside the clothing of the people it had devoured, thrown into blatant contrast by the indifference with which he regarded his own cursory impersonation.
Her bee-line was abruptly severed by Siobhan’s fanged and intersecting smirk as the latter lurched in front of her, dragging Leighton Sotherby-Aldrich toward the ladies’ room by her wrist and cackling like a pantomime witch. Opal turned to scan the crowd again as she stood alongside Edward, their association flagged explicitly by the black, descending strokes of the graphic overhead.
“I think we can do this here.” she began without looking up at him. “I’ve negotiated an offer with the Prague contingent. The first, and last." Anticipating an objection, she tossed her head at the gatecrashers that had flouted what security remained and suffused through the invited guests like an infective agent. "Look at these idiots. Half of them would stab each other before they came at me. None of them would thank you for siding with them if you turned the local reservoir to bourbon for your second miracle.” Opal cracked a smile at a pair of passing benefactors. “In return for your active assistance in implementing domestic policy, you'll receive tithing rights over your local precinct... needless to say, any declarable income will exhibit a robust respectability. I don’t have to tell you about their impeccable track record with snuffling bureaucrats. When you want to stretch your legs I think you’ll find the local hahdris will meet your recreational needs... that kind of acreage is wasted under tin-licking alujha and they won’t be needing howling room where they’re going.” On the other side of the room, a resounding crash set off a ripple of discord, though they could not perceive the nature of the incident from their position against the wall. “Your immediate household will be black-stamped against shrinkage, so you won’t need to fret when your sweetheart wanders away in her underwear. In fact, her days of wandering anywhere without your approval will come to a blessed conclusion... they provide intensive supervision of all junior family members.” Her head turned toward him, though her unblinking gaze remained upon her guests. “Before you convince yourself you’re far too principled to accept, you may as well know you won’t be answering to me, darling. You’ll be directly responsible.” Her anger at the refusal told in his every element proved difficult to conceal, though she held onto it grimly, the effort pinching her face laterally. “Don’t try selling me your not caring either way about your nasty princess. You didn’t keep her home because you like the sound of angry whore. I could go on like a Bond villain about what happens when you sit in your room like a spoilt brat, but if you can’t work it out for yourself, at least you’ll recognize the body parts in your mail box, once they start coming.”
Edward saw the bottle in the hands of the dark-haired witch who had pushed through the crowd toward them and made no move to avoid it as she loosed it at them, his eyes remaining on hers as it crashed into the wall by Opal’s head. Oily red sloe gin ran down the plaster while the dissident spat on the vampyre’s dress, including Edward in her denouncement with the vehemence of her stare.
“E vin yet naat affri ya vech.” she snarled, the words white hot against their skin. Caleb appeared at her shoulder and drew her back into the knot of piping socialites while Edward looked to Opal in his grasp of the ancient anathema.
“She said may you die with your gold still upon you.” he told her. “Pass that on for me.”
Josephine wiped back hair from her face and glanced down at her watch again. Beside her, in the double darkness beneath the elms, Shaw nodded an acknowledgement of her grievance and folded his arms. The long grass stroked their crouching legs, growing damp as the night cooled.
“She’s not going anywhere, she’s high as a kite. Put me out over the wall... my ride’s half a click down the road.”
He shook his head emphatically.
“She’s going to see you and talk about it. She’s winding down. Give it another five.”
“I say you walk me out right past her... I’m your girlfriend, whatever. She's too far gone to care anyway.”
“She’s too damn vocal. She’ll raise hell, and whatever just went in there will come back out again...”
They both hung their heads as Rachelle recommenced her wailing, pressed to the bars of the gate, the keening pitch of her voice carrying it past them into the rear garden.
“Okay... your way.” Shaw conceded. She caught his arm.
“Jesus, did you see that?”
Josephine's gaze returned to the gates and the silhouette of the figure still demonstrating against them, the scene drawn in black and orange.
“There it is... top of the gate, go across the street, come up half a foot... right over her head. Retinal flash.” Shaw saw nothing remarkable until a tiny catch of brighter colour sparked amid the darkness of the trees hunched on the far side of the road. She seized his arm. "It's green. We need to fall back.”
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce