“If it isn’t everyone’s favourite cabana boy.”
“Bede!” William cried, leaping up to throw his arms around the stranger’s neck and kiss his forehead. "Salaud! Que fais-tu ici, toi?”
“I'm following my star.” he smiled; William glanced over his shoulder as though expecting a blow, at which his companion laughed. “Only figuratively. She’s on the West Coast.”
The creature smiling at him shared so many of his somatic traits that there could be no doubt of consanguinity. He brushed a fall of black hair from over his eyes, long hands heavily figured with indigo tattoos that disappeared into the sleeves of his worsted coat, his gaze two glowing shades darker than the sullen gold of Edward's. The formality of his english argued directly with the exoticism of his appearance.
“Doing anything particular?” William inquired.
“I came downtown for the lilies but you’ve beaten me to most of them.”
“Best longiflorums outside Aalsmeer. You snooze, you lose.” He grinned, and kissed his cousin again in the face of the traders' unappreciative scowls. Together they rescued the bags and set off beneath the buzzing neon, past yawning hookers, fresh urine steaming in the peeling doorways beside wads of tabloid newspapers, the sharp smell of the presses still rising from their pages and mingling with the exhaust from courier vans. “Thought you were still in Umbria.” William remarked, reverting easily to the ancient tongue they shared with no one else, its character leavened with modern appropriations.
"We were forced to decamp. It’s a funny story, actually... a strange man tried to core-sample my arm outside the Doge’s palace.”
Bede leant forward and delved into the pockets of his darkening coat, producing a wad of identification documents, both laminate and plain; sifting through his own plethora of names and guises, he selected one that differed and handed it over, watching William examine the item with an expert’s eye for forgery. Rain blurred its plastic coating and the unsmiling features of its middle-aged subject, the latter too wide and ruddy to be anything but American, overstamped with Federal seals and watermarks. He tilted it away from the street light, then shook his head, dismayed.
“Oh no no no... la la la la la...” he exclaimed, covering his ears with his hands, bag handles sliding to the crooks of his elbows.
Bede waited out the racket.
“If we’d dug our heads into the sand, I shudder to think where the next biopsy might have come from.”
“They were disbanded under Reagan.”
“Tis the season for dubious revivals... wedge heels, stubborn venereal conditions... Anomaly Investigation Units. They must have been watching the airports because the more we moved, the closer they seemed to come... they found us in Naples, which is strange enough... we left for Venice, our thought being that we should at least make their accountants reach for their heart pills, but that’s where things became really unpleasant. They broke into our villa, followed us afoot, terrorized the domestiche...”
“Tell me about the time when Nyāti doesn’t think she's being followed.”
“Sachiin, trust me when I say that paranoia does not tear apart your rental accommodation or corner you in alleyways. Ny caught one with the poker when we walked in on them, and I picked two off in Spoletto. They’re AIU.”
"Putain... would they talk?”
“They tried to peddle that old chestnut about only being after psychics, but I like to think they were more candid after the firetongs came out.” Bede tapped the card that William still examined. “This one admitted they were uplifting specimens... he said they were the only unit in operation, but he was fibbing. We lost them on the way over and haven’t seen them since.”
William cursed again to himself in three more languages.
"I fucking knew I saw someone up there."
"Out at Ed's house, on the hill over the road." he conceded reluctantly, as much to himself as his companion. “It’s not that I don’t believe you, mahatma, it's just... I've never actually felt their eyes on my body. Caleb's crew are always pissing in my ear about mystery disappearances... I just thought they were ghosting each other and needed the story. That, and I just can’t see their end these days. What the fuck is their problem with us?"
"Moral panic?" Bede suggested, eyeing him dubiously. “It may be that we present some form of biohazard, but there’s not much to choose between your own military industrial applications and being collected prophylactically for the good of mankind.”
"You make it sound so sexy. Look...” William exclaimed, waving a bag at the darkness. “It’s a legion of civil rights lawyers and they’re cutting off their dicks to handle our case.” He smiled again at his companion and nudged him into a stop sign. “Europa’s a shitty ghetto anyway. Someone died and put fucking bloodsuckers in charge... that's bullshit, man." At a taxi stand they paused while he emptied his pockets and rifled every crevice of his wallet, glancing up once more at his companion. "Nothing else to declare?" he scowled over the rustle of his bags. Bede shook his head.
"Ny thought here as safe as anywhere, given the circumstances... she has business, and you know how she pines for you."
William's crooked smile slid back into a frown.
“Ed’ll shit pineapples if he gets wind of this. Don’t tell him." Grimacing slightly, the newcomer made an uneasy gesture with his shoulders. "I'll tell him, ça va? Fuck... he’s just bought a new place...”
“Oh... you're... cohabiting?”
“Yeah. It’s a bit... transitional. But I've managed to blag my way off the discard pile.” Bede sucked in air between his teeth. "It's not that bad, actually... I've got him forming sentences and everything."
“Sachiin, I’m not sure everyone's a candidate for rehabilitation, and I do say that lovingly.”
“It’s not like I’m just whacking away at his cage with a stick to see what happens.” The visitor smiled indulgently, and he grinned back at him. “Need a bunk?”
“Offer me one and I’ll pay for the ride.”
“I should er..." William swung the bags in circles on either side of himself. "Warn you about Ed, though... he's..."
"Still as he was?" Bede suggested. "To what degree, exactly?"
"I can’t downgrade him from skullfucking soulreaper yet. He does talk, I wasn't exaggerating, but he can still hone edge weapons with his arse cheeks, and if he reaches, you better run in a big fucking zig-zag. But... I am sensing change. The house is okay, it’s not Alcatraz or anything, just don't... you know... expect marimbas.”
“I am prepared to forego them at this juncture.” said Bede as he climbed down into the taxi alongside his companion.
The rain stopped as they were driven away.
Josephine Jones brought her night-vision visor to her eyes, adjusting the flattened green rendition of the surrounding darkness with its dials. Its casing creaked as she leant forward, propping her elbows on the bonnet of a Range Rover to quarter the ivy-strangled wall and the wilding darkness beyond, high on the shoulder of the hill over Commoriom Drive. The road formed a stripe of vacant negative alongside an enclave contrived by pre-Depression magnates seeking acreage to compliment their brownstones. Its clement, arboreal seclusion had matured just as duties and reversals had forced the clans from their demesnes, leaving them largely unoccupied and deeply neglected.
One of the oldest of the derelict estates stood back from the road behind a set of leaning iron gates, lampless and barely weather-tight. Its wan Edwardian expanse had once staged Gibson-girl opium soirées and sinister flapper scandals, though it had settled in its abandon to accommodating encroaching wildlife. Josephine cursed the care with which it had been chosen by her elusive subjects, handing the instrument to her companion.
Trent drew deeply on his fraying cigarette, its tip bright against his sunken cheek; the wet smell of marijuana drifted over her and she surveyed him through the smoke. He was on the furthest side of middle age and possessed a gnarled physique that bordered on the grotesque, his features constructed of the same rude, tanned matter, hawk nose thinning to an empurpled cere. Despite his martial aspect he moved with a carelessness that seemed like rebellion against invisible constraint. His boots were deeply creased and mud-encrusted.
"Where were you before this shit?” he grunted.
“Bag van... research.” she replied, folding her arms..
“Meat wagons? Guess it aint bad now like it used to be. I heard stories’ll make you piss blood.”
She knew he was only exaggerating slightly, having spent a decade shoveling human fatalities and the creatures that had predated them into the backs of vans flagged with unassuming commercial livery. Trent returned her interest obliquely from behind the visor. Amid her early thirties, she might have passed for almost any age in the preceding decade with her height, her tight, clean olive skin and deer-brown eyes, her ash-blonde pony tail bleached by summers in the field. The man relished her youth even less than her competence to operate every piece of surveillence equipment in the vehicle behind them; he was certain that her face required make-up and her abstention was a puzzling irritation.
A taxi slowed to a crawl as it was directed toward the gates, its occupants disembarking with plastic shopping bags. She hauled back the heavy lens that tipped her camera forward on its monopod. Through the glass, the pair before the iron gates were almost indistinguishably alike, glowing even at the edge of the hooded streetlight, the last in an elderly chain. One gave its bags to the other and appeared to search its garments with its hands, then they walked to the boundary wall, negotiating it with an ease that almost bested Josephine’s attempt to record the process, the first dropping out of sight while the second stood for a moment on top of the masonry. She switched her view to active infra-red, the expanded spectrum revealing a number of unsettling properties. Its face and hands bled out into the shadows, visible only with movement; unknown structures in its eyes collected ambient light into two points of floating occult green. From gazing at the street they shifted suddenly and flared, and in a moment of smothering fright she thought it stared directly through the lens. Her companion chuckled.
“Seaworld should be dealing with these freaks. They got everything fuckin jumping and back-flipping... they got a fuckin killer whale too scared to take a shit. Put it in a fuckin cage and terrorise it's what I say. Works fine on the bloodsuckers, even seen it work on howlers.”
“Sanguivores will tolerate confinement with minimal protocols. They'd cut the metamorphs loose if their material wasn't so valuable, and they're the best indication of what to expect from this genera.”
“What a sack of bullshit... head shed just aint got the stones to pick them up.” he laughed contemptuously. “Meanwhile they’re out there freeballin and flipping us off.”
He hoisted himself into the driver’s side while Josephine remained, staring down into the darkness, letting him swear at her recalcitrance before returning to the car and stowing her equipment. He knocked his filthy boots together in a sarcastic concession and rolled another joint despite her visible disgust.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce