"Ms Christabel." said Shaw, pushing back the grey hood of his sweater. "You don't mind, do you? It's coming down pretty hard out there." He smiled at her visible dismay, following her into the kitchen where he occupied the doorway, leaning against the frame and blowing the steam from his flask of coffee. Rain had painted brief, almost digital falls of darkness across his shoulders though the rest of his clothing was largely untouched by the downpour. "That damn thing..." he added, shaking his head at the coffee machine. "Let me look at it..."
"I can sort it." Susan muttered, pulling the hood from the appliance herself and standing on tip toe to peer inside. She glanced back at him over her shoulder when he advanced despite her assurance, and he returned to the doorway.
"Sure not much of a night out there. That driveway's going to ice up pretty good in a month or so... hope they get some grit out here. I don't want to leave my ride out on the street when the snow hits." His observations redoubled her annoyance as she discovered the reservoir tube stood disarticulated, unscrewed from the base of the steam wand. "Thought about catching a movie tomorrow... want a ride into town? I'm just down the road and I could use..."
"I can't. We're busy tomorrow."
"Stepping out with Mr Lamb junior? You two seem pretty tight lately..." Susan looked back again at his knowing smile, slapping the cupboards closed overhead. "Where you headed?"
"Where are we headed?" she iterated, scowling up at him when he did not oblige her approach to the door.
"Did it come out like that? I'm just trying to make nice.." She tried to press past him; Shaw put out an arm and stayed her. "Hey, that's new." he exclaimed, tapping at the site of her scars on his own neck. "Did that happen here?" His scrutiny became more acute. "Come on, you can't tell me this was nothing... you should talk to someone."
"Will you get out of my way, please?" she told him, turning sideways to shove past him.
The same rain lashed the tall panes that lined the studio, drumming on the roof, spewing in freshets from the broken guttering and gouging at the ground below. The lengthy chamber was perfumed by precious woods, polish and storage dust, and Edward stood, looking down at the scabbard in his hands, its dark, discreet lacquer sheathing the last odachi in his possession. His protracted reach allowed him to remove the blade from its housing unaided, a smooth, dry shucking sound attending its removal; he lay it across his palm, frowning down at the nicks and gouges marring its edge, though the steel still bore the lustrous damascene grain of its painstaking assembly. It predated the zenith of the swordsmith’s art, its imperfection a brittle, unforgiving thing that he had always exploited, keeping his proficiency in spite of it.
The last of the oxblood bags hung from the ceiling; the web of tendons in his left hand contracted, pulling tight as he closed his fingers on the clothbound hilt. Performing no guard or formal posture, he set off in the midst of his purpose, blade blinking with the colour of the ceiling as he whipped it backward and swung its length through the bag; the lower half fell with a short thud to the boards, cleanly severed, the impact bleeding through his feet as though he had stamped them hard. Lilian's scent drifted past him as he sheathed the blade, a sweet guest amid the notes crowding the studio. She stood, tying a black robe about her waist while he replaced the weapon on one of the cabinets earmarked for sale. A mass of furniture and objet lined the window-bearing wall, its diverse shapes and surfaces exaggerating the distance between them.
“That was hot." she said quietly. "You should have come got me.”
“I hack alone.” he replied. Lilian looked around herself and chose the carver he had taken from his room, sitting down slowly and casting her speculation over their belongings before turning it on him. Her scrutiny met little resistance; he took a chair for himself from the wall.
“First time you brought me here, know what I thought?” she asked.
“No.” he admitted.
“That you were a bad trick.” The polished floor reflected her as she reached up and lifted her silver hair from her neck with both hands, twisting it into a knot upon her head.
“And yet my money was as good as anyone’s.”
“Sure it was. You were the first guy I wanted to see naked since I was eighteen. That, and you were double tapping Orb's ass, right there in your head...”
“I don’t remember.”
She made a small, exculpatory gesture.
“You probably don’t even know you’re doing it.”
Edward turned his hand over on the arm of his chair and opened it slowly, in an invitation she obliged in her own partial, ambiguous manner, easing herself onto her feet and walking toward him alongside the consigned effects, pausing to examine their components.
“Can’t believe I ever got in your car.” she said, almost to herself, fingers moving over the busy grain of an old coffer.
“You must be sorry you did.”
“I’m saying it was fucked up... I’m not saying I regret it. Jesus, you’re so fucking literal.” His hand renewed its gesture of demand; she moved closer still, examining a low bronze censer. “Do I look like her?” she asked, surprising him with the question. He took some small time to himself.
“Yes, and no. You seem younger... everyone does today.”
“How old was she?”
“Thirty-eight when she died.”
Her expression altered slightly as she nodded.
“How are we the same?”
Edward closed his eyes.
“Your voice. And your skin."
“Did you love her?”
“More than I thought possible.” he replied, watching her struggle with his responses.
“I guess... what I want to hear is that, whatever happened, it was worth the stitches...” Lilian admitted. "That you made each other happy."
“I'm happy now.” Her glance was heavily shaded with disbelief. “I'm perverse...” he reminded her. “It has its moments.” Watching him say the word led her to ponder his facility across that involuted spectrum, her compulsive taste for it and her own fatalistic discipline, the prospect of confining herself once more within detachment awaiting his absence like a jailer. He spoke her name; the approach of someone along the hall outside made him defer the question, though it longed for her. They looked together toward Susan, who felt the heat of unwitting intrusion, remaining in the doorway until Lilian created a small, makeshift distance between them, turning to two paintings propped alongside one another at her right and lighting a cigarette as she considered them.
“Flicking both?” she asked.
“I don’t know yet.” said Edward. “Some things you can’t give up, no matter what you tell yourself.”
“Everything gets old... just give it time.” she sighed. “Personally, I got a hard on for the Delacroix. Who doesn't love a lion beating up a fucking jaguar?”
"Leopard. New World felidae were entirely absent from the Rive Gauche during the period in question." Susan rolled her eyes, and Lilian directed a mocking look at her.
“Are you accusing my associate of being a humourless freak?” she smirked.
“I’m not saying anything.” Susan promised, venturing toward them despite the lingering atmosphere that prevailed. Their possessions were laid out in careless, barbaric splendour, like a three-dimensional Lascaux, a panorama of lavish, orphaned beauty and disordered ornamentation, randomized by its loss of context; though she had seen many of the pieces about the house, Susan found herself gazing on them with new eyes, recognizing qualities previously disguised by domesticity.
"What's happened?" Edward asked her from his chair. She was reminded of Shaw, and startled to think his importuning might have told upon her features, but shook her head. Behind them William dragged a half-rolled rug into the studio, his arms stuffed with artifacts chosen from his own rooms; beside Edward’s already substantial body of selected pieces he deposited fragments of Parthian gold in a plastic shopping bag, a cigar box stuffed with uncut sapphires and a smoothly planate Olmec mask of mottled olive jadite. He and Lilian glanced briefly at, then away from each other, their silence persisting. Susan glanced at him pointedly as he reached back and switched on a half-dead bank of lights.
“That’s white man’s electricity.” Lilian observed. William smiled.
“Tell him to come and get his women next time you see him.” he replied, his vulgarity drawing both of their disapprobation. “They’re wearing down my best inch.” He sat in the vacated chair and patted a knee for each female companion, lighting a cigarette when the invitation was refused and glancing over his shoulder at Susan departing the studio. "That's my fucking Delacroix.”
"Auberjonois is late." Edward muttered.
"Eight's alujha for nine forty-seven. Okay, so, town meeting." William proposed, clicking his fingers in a desultory call to order upon Susan’s return. "When all this shit is gone we'll have some liquide, but then... what? Then we should g... g... starts with g, say it with me..."
"We should leave." said Edward.
"I was looking for get the fuck out of here, but I'll take that. I'm not waiting around for whatever found Cay and Annick to kick our fucking door down."
"And go where?" Susan demanded, chewing on the corner of her thumb. He shrugged.
"Mmm... let's just peel out and decide where afterwards. But hey, we've got our very own sinister self-appointed egomaniac in charge and it's traditional to dignify that shit with some sort of sham election, so all in favour of bugging out, in principle, hands up.” He raised his own, as did Susan and Lilian. While he spoke, a well of diminutive darkness gathered in the doorway, Petrouchka standing before the Delacroix in a black dress with her hand touching her chin, gaze rising from it to the rain that still threw itself against the windows. “What do you want to do, Pet? Coming with us?” William inquired. The vampyre avoided Lilian with great decorum, alighting on the arm of his chair.
“Is kind, darlink, but I go with Gideon. He have aeroplane, so... is good for me. You, Susan? What do you do?”
“Going with him.” she sighed.
“She needs some reliable heat.” William told his brother.
“No! I don’t want to be a stupid macho gun toting arsehole...” she complained, perceiving just as rapidly that she had lain the unflattering designation upon the bulk of her companions, and that they looked back at her in silence.
“Ever hear about the awesomeness of being a live gun toting arsehole instead of a corpse with a really clear conscience?” William inquired, watching her walk to the calamander table behind the painting and draw her Mughul pendant from the pocket of her robe. “Christabel... no no no... qu'est-ce que tu fous?” he exclaimed, leaning out to catch the chain and stuff it back into her hands; she fended him off and replaced it on the table.
“I’m not going anywhere if I can’t pay my way. If you touch it, I will flush it down the toilet.”
“I’ve got maybe three K left.” Lilian said slowly as she blew the dust from the blue gems William had purveyed, the ragged stones rolling in their bed of cigarette paper.
“Your money’s no good here, sugartits. You paid the rent the hard way.” he smiled to her look of displeasure.
“These are fucking primo. I know a guy who’ll like them.”
“They need to er... stay low profile.”
“I get that they didn’t fly out of your asshole to the sound of fucking trumpets. Do you want me to call him or not?”
Susan watched Edward devote his unqualified attention to Lilian and wondered how they could have immersed themselves in one another to such an extent without satisfying the directive impulse. Something even more elemental than desire altered the colour of his eyes and kept him silent, even when she looked up and saw it in him, their shared privilege requiring nothing more explicit. His phone buzzed in his pocket and he stood, leaving the ballroom to attend to the call; in his absence, William stretched out a leg and gently kicked Lilian’s calf. She looked to him but did not speak, and he shook his head to himself.
“Go with him, Frost. Who else’ll duct tape you to a clothesline and paint you with Tabasco sauce? You were lucky to find someone who shares your interests.”
“Some day my prince will come.” she murmured. “Maybe he won’t be twitchy or foreign, but I guess he’ll be fucking human. What's more important?” She looked up from her own flattened affect to the morbid exclusivity of Petrouchka’s stare, glad of Edward’s return.
“I’ll dismiss the guard in the next few days... say nothing to him.” he told them. Susan looked up as though she might speak, but remained quiet.
“Put it back.” she insisted instead, perceiving the absence of her pendant upon the table; William offered her an expression that might have convinced anyone else of his innocence, letting his head fall back in dramatic concession when she persisted, allowing her to drag the secreted jewel out of his pocket.
"What the fuck kind of time do you call this?" he demanded of Gideon, the latter admitting himself with a smile that he passed around the room, sustaining it even at the sight of Lilian, though she gave him visible pause.
"Embouteillage." he explained with a shrug, taking out his phone to briskly photograph the larger pieces and tallying their wholesale value. "Edward, the Ziegler Mahal... you don't want to wait for Sotherby's? This size, it has done very well..."
"Now is better." Edward replied.
"For us both." he smiled, making notes. He made further inquiries regarding several of the more obscure items before pushing his pencil through the gold chain and lifting the pendant slowly, setting the loupe from his pocket to his right eye to read the elegant inscription faintly etched into the reverse. "Êtes-vous sûr?" he inquired, looking to William almost warily.
"Do you think you'll get anything for it?" asked Susan, slightly discomforted by Gideon's expression.
"Un peu." he smiled, obscurely. "Edward..." he continued, shaking his head briefly at the unaccustomed and entirely inapposite honorific as he walked back toward him. "Per'aps you can settle something for me... you have seen these?" Accepting his phone, Edward looked through the images of the hahdri massacre as though they were holiday snapshots, Susan watching their dark, bruised hues projected over the gold of his eyes. "What, ah, does this look like, to you?"
"You don't know who?"
"AP, seven six two, spent flares... governmental." Edward related. Lilian ran a hand up the bare length of her neck while he spoke, the small moment of intimate self-contact drawing his gaze; Gideon frowned, awaiting the remainder of his conclusion while she passed behind Petrouchka and disappeared into the hall. Edward returned his phone, remaining until the necessary will began to fail him.
"Per'aps we should all go blonde." Gideon remarked as their host left them. "I think his queue put you in charge, Sachiin, so... voilá, my offer." He tore a leaf from his note pad and handed it to William, who screwed it into a ball and leveled a critical gaze at his companion.
"Monsieur hermétique... constipé du morlingue." he mused.
"Don't be so fucking tight. You're choking the moths."
"Another ten, that is all I can do. Ça va?"
"Another fifteen and I'll blow you in the garage."
"Ten it is." Gideon smiled, taking his chequebook from his pocket.
"I said cash, damn you."
"You say a lot of things, chouchou." The visitor smiled again and handed William a note on his way out. “Be happy.” he urged. “Now you can buy her some good taste in men. Ladies... bon nuit, eh?"
"Mes couilles sur ton nez." William called after him.
“Do you have no clue where we’re going?” Susan sighed as he closed the door.
“I go where I’m told, cloudcheeks. Mr Itinerary just put up the do not disturb sign, so I wouldn’t count on getting anything out of him for twelve hours.”
“Anyway, you can not always know.” Petrouchka observed. “You think, I am going to this place, but, something happen, and then you are in the Ukraine on farm with chicken, and there is no Paris. Sometimes is five star, sometimes goat barn... sometime no barn. These day, if you want to be free, you must go where no one else want.”
“Aren't we there already?" Susan smiled. "At least tell me when we’re leaving.” she added, shrugging her shoulders suddenly as William traced the back of her knees with his fingers from his seat in the chair.
“Ed’s got stuff to choke off downtown, so I’d say we’ve got another week."
C O N T I N U E D... S O O N I S H.
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce