“Oh go on... I took you into my bank.” She stripped off her coat and fell in behind him as he crossed the pavement with the slender black case.
An aegis-like desk formed both a greeting and a barrier across the midst of a vast reception shaded by dark glass walls that soared away into the waist of the tower, the sound of their feet on the stone floor echoing back at them in soft, delayed confusion. Behind the sweep of granite and veneer two brunettes stood like a matched pair of horses in their Prussian blue livery; they treated Edward to a fulsome greeting, smiles expanding and decaying in unison. The ambience that had always flagged the thought of wealth in Susan’s estimation was freshly embodied in the smell of polished metal, computer terminals and a simple bass note of exclusivity itself, the green tang of a dollar bill rolled into the ghost of wood smoke. Her companion completed the required codes and exchanges at the scrupulously polite behest of the fractionally taller woman, who led them to the end of the counter.
“This way please, Mr Alton.” she suggested. Susan’s frown flew to his profile; he ignored it, glancing at the guards who nodded in deference and allowing their guide to discharge her brief spiel while she admitted them to a narrow, glass-walled antechamber, then stepped back from the sliding door beyond. They were left to enter the spacious vault alone. It was faced entirely with rows of numbered silver partitions, their monotony extending to the two low desks fabricated of the same brushed metal; they occupied the middle of the alcove, like altars to the mysteries entombed around them. Susan gazed in a circle until it began to affect her balance.
"I can't believe I'm actually standing inside one of these things."
“We're phasing them out."
"Why?" He held up one of his irregular hands. "Oh, right... biometrics." She frowned in sympathy with his predicament. “Having this much money seems more trouble than it’s worth.”
Edward stood staring at the wall before him.
“I gave up a black tent in the Empty Quarter to come here, and I don’t remember why.”
"Why do you bother?”
“This is the West. Being poor is too expensive.”
“I know. You were only paying me two fifty a week.” Susan folded her arms against the chill of the vault and watched him unlock the first cache, drawing out the smooth compartment and bearing it toward her. “It's got to be well strange, choosing your own name.” she added as he sorted through the enclosed documentation.
“Sachiin asks a woman to guess.”
“Really? How long have you been Edward?”
“Drunk heiress, house party in the Loire. First half of the fifteenth century.”
"It doesn't suit you."
"I am aware of that."
"Who were you before?"
"I don't remember."
“So... I only think of him as William because of some trolleyed French tart, five hundred years ago?” Edward left the table for the other wall. “How do they say it? Guillaume?” She laughed to herself at the dubious sound of the word, and regretted the lack of nerve preventing her extending her enquiries; as if to underscore the inadvisability of doing so, Edward stood looking into the second deposit box for a moment before slamming it back into the wall and turning in the midst of a suddenly-visible state, for once so poorly contained that she slid carefully from the desk and retreated behind its furthest end. He watched her without explaining himself, a thick, white piece of paper grasped in his hand. Unwilling to goad him further with timidity, Susan came forward, watching his face all the while, and slid the note carefully from between his fingers, only to find that she could not understand its printed Latin maxim.
“Where now does the sun shine?” he muttered, translating for her.
“Was it imp...”
“Four deeds, sixty eight carats, six hundred and twenty seven thousand, five hundred and sixty six dollars US.” He stood with his arms by his sides, re-imposing moderation, however extrinsic, while consequences and implications rolled out and concatenated of their own accord. She reached down into her bag, offering him the money he had gifted her. Though he refused it with a look the spirit behind the gesture was accepted and seemed slowly to relieve his most unsettling elements, winding back the stunning, whiplash process that had rendered him a stranger.
“I don’t think Opal leaves fuck you notes in Latin.” she concluded, hands on hips. Edward brought the first box to the table and cleared its contents into his black case.
"Old World undead standard operating procedure. Incorporate the willing, strip and pillory dissenters. We fall into the second category, and now, so do you. Félicitations."
"Well, I could have ended up one of them." She groaned into her hands. "Oh god... why does anyone care about this bollocks? Why can't they just suck blood and mind their own fucking business?"
"They're human before anything else. It's an intrinsically totalitarian condition."
"Don't call me intrinsically totalitarian, and you're partly human... I suppose we're just lucky whatever else you are doesn't like politics. If your brother was here he'd ask who we have to fuck to get out of this, so I'll just go with that."
"The Bailiss." Her blank look prompted him to expatiate. "Vampyres are a nation, a nation needs a figurehead. They appointed a notary, an administrator, stationed in Praha. The current one burnt his predecessor in the sixteenth century, recruited a praetorian guard and has been extending tentacles ever since." He fastened the catches. "Who could have predicted something like that?”
"Is it hard, being right all the time?"
"Marginally less so than the alternative." Edward consulted his phone once again, studying the appliance in apparent resignation.
"Shall we... I don't know... just go and have a cup of tea or something?
“I am going to meet Nyāti. Wait in the car”
He walked from the foot of the black tower some time later; Susan stood on the footpath, arms akimbo, glaring at their blurred and impoverished reflections in the side of the SUV that had blocked in his sedan. She looked over her shoulder at his approach.
"Give them the finger." she urged, lifting her own to do so then letting it fall as she watched him reach almost into his coat, a motion of intent that sent the vehicle on its way.
The last hours of the afternoon had drawn enough heat from the sun to recall a more vernal incarnation by the time they had found the nominated café, visiting on the pedestrian leg of their journey a hunting boutique that had caught Edward’s unfailing eye. Susan found herself encumbered with an oil-green anorak and gaiters in spite of her stony-faced opposition, and humped the glossy bag through wrought-iron tables into the shade of a plane tree pressed between two blocks of gentrified brick. Despite her annoyance she was struck by the figure awaiting them in the spotted shade, enclosed in an elegant dove-grey trench, a heavy string of fat, vivid turquoise beads wound around the pallor of her neck. Nyāti watched Edward leave room for Susan across the table from her and the latter sat down before them, forming the notion that the two seemed like halves of the same forbidding animal. They spoke quietly to one another, exchanging some cursory greeting. Susan glanced at the menu and conferred her selection to a waiter, frowning at Nyāti's unblinking interest.
“She seems to have survived your strenuous attempts to dispatch her.” the latter remarked cooly, the disclosure prompting Susan to look purposefully toward Edward.
“Young people today.” he replied. “I’m prepared to accept the commission, but I don’t get out of bed for less than a hundred thousand US per individual, inclusive of disposal and a limited schedule of expenses. She'll float as she is. I'll need a new chainsaw.”
“I'm less inclined than you to throw money at Sachiin’s mistakes.” said Nyāti, clearly weary of the subject.
Susan sat with her bags propped on her lap.
“And I don't really want to die just at the moment.” she scowled. “Mind you, I haven’t been forced to wear this yet.” she added, shaking the anorak out of its plastic cowl and holding it up in both hands. “He did have a go at killing me, but he’s either going soft in his old age or he forgot the bullets and just didn’t want to say anything.”
“You must have been born lucky.” Nyāti replied to her facetiousness. Susan shrugged.
"I suppose we can't all be perfect."
“We’re leaving sometime in the next two weeks. I suggest you do the same.” said Edward.
“I’m going today. Frankfurt, and then on to Nepal... if I see no articulate creature for another century, I will consider myself blessed.” She seemed to have at last expressed a sentiment to which he could subscribe; Nyāti steered their conversation into unintelligibility, and Susan set down her bags and made for the bar in the rear of the converted terrace. Seating herself at the counter, she nodded to the barman’s offer of a lager and answered her phone, relieved to hear William’s voice over strident rocksteady.
“Packed up?” she inquired.
“Getting there.” He sounded weary, half-troubled.
“Nothing... just... baked.”
“Make sure none of them drive the truck into town with a bong in their face because I don’t think today’s the day we need to be bailing anyone out or having things confiscated.” she sighed, sipping the froth on her beer. “Someone cleaned out your brother’s bank vault thingy, and mine... he’s not very happy.”
William let the phone fall for a moment.
“Is he still talking?”
“Don’t let him go quiet... distract him.” A waiter emerged from the kitchen with her order and she slid down from the stool, following him out.
"You're scaring me now. What is it, for god’s sake?”
“Frost’s gone.” he sighed. “She lost her shit and ran. I couldn’t stop her.”
“You mean you didn’t try."
“Christabel, if she’d wanted to be chained to a headboard... I think we both know how that sentence ends. We’ll just... let him find out for himself...”
She choked on a mouthful of beer.
“Are you mad? He’ll go absolutely fucking mental!”
“We don't know that... maybe he’s... already over it...” William pressed his palm to his eye, despairing at the pathetic nature of the assurance.
“Your brother is a six foot four inch repressed homicidal maniac who never deals with anything! He just told me that himself! Have you stood next to him lately? Do you know how big he is? I'm stuck here with him...”
“We’re all the same size.”
“The only person he ever listens to just pink slipped his arse and went back on the fucking stroll.”
“You should have made Lilian tell him... this is her bloody mess.” she complained. “I have to go... I only ordered steak so I could eat it in front of Nyāti. I’ll tell him, alright? Just... don't do anything else stupid.”
Back at the table, her companions' implacable antipathy transformed the consumption of her jus-dressed rib eye into the defilement of some echoing sanctum beneath the sacred golden gazes of its statuary. Only the urging of her own biology allowed her to press on, hunching over her plate and sawing quickly at the grilled flesh while her eyes fell to the highest element in the scarified design descending from the base of Nyāti's throat. Beneath the turquoise beads it spiraled in two opposing directions before disappearing under her collar, suggesting curving horns, or some double headed serpent. Her substance had resisted exile, existing in its impossibly distant remove like strung pearls recalling the forsaken sea. Susan could see something of the same in Edward, though the loss had closed over inside him.
“What of Rana?” Nyāti asked, returning to their conversation.
“I don't possess the authority to question her divine imperative.” he replied.
“So you leave her to these creatures. And what becomes of this unprincipled preoccupation of your own? Which imperatives prevail in her respect?” Nyāti replied to his silence with an incisive stare. “Another fortunate soul. You must both treasure the thought you gave to the consequences of your patronage before extending it. Will you hand her directly to the interested parties before you go, or let her think she has a start on them?”
“You’d say the same thing if I were forcing her to leave with me.” he told her. She frowned faintly at his response, following his gaze as though hearing something more.
“Until now, I would have never suspected you of wanting to.” she assured him. “Whoever she is, Kala'amātya... let her go. None of this becomes you.”
“Speaking of expedient repudiations, have you heard anything from Avi'ashān, or does he cease to have ever been?”
Nyāti accepted the retaliation with the same dark brand of contained displeasure, retaining his attention as she set down her glass, the sun casting shifting white refraction through its contents onto the table cloth. She stood up.
“There is blood on your face.” she informed Susan, by way of farewell. Fishing a mirror from her handbag, the latter wiped at the corner of her mouth, glancing across to Edward, who had sat back in his chair and lapsed into staring in the direction of the bar.
"Cow." she muttered. She nursed what remained of her beer and then drained it, reclaiming his attention with the grave use of his name, glad of the table between them, and of the strangers sitting behind her. “I was just talking to William, and... I don't know how to say this, so... Lilian left this morning. I mean, for good. I'm sorry.”
She was deeply relieved that he did not seem surprised. Edward's gaze fell to the table, then moved slowly past her, losing itself in the distant dust-red of the brick wall. That he did not wish to speak was plain, but he did so, in recognition of her struggle.
“In’sha’Allah.” he said quietly, the phrase weighted with such charred fatalism that she yearned to contradict him.
“Did you ask her to come with us?”
“I can offer her nothing more than Sachiin offers you.” The admission settled like a pair of cold hands on her face and she was reminded of the first time she had spoken to him, though it was the absence and not the weight of sanction that impressed her, the knowledge that her observations enjoyed passage after all, alighting within him in unseen forms.
"It couldn't have been easy for her to go." she sighed. "But if she has..." A breeze shifted the slender, half-denuded branches overhead; she abandoned her suggestion and brushed the leaves from the auction catalogue he had neglected, thumbing aimlessly through the pages, absorbing little of its contents and returning to the cover image of a slender Tibetan Avalokiteśvara figure carved of smoke-stained wood, long robes sinuously plicated, the swept curvature of her gaze reprised in Edward’s. She remembered William's advice about his silence and forced herself to intrude upon it once more. “Gideon’s stuff does look incredibly stolen.” She turned the featured image toward him. "That looks like your grandmother.”
“Our grandmother went into the sea when Sachiin was born.”
“My god... why?"
“Two grandsons. Social death."
“And he’s almost a girl after all.” she smiled ruefully.
“I would say to tell her when you meet her, but she'll be in the hell for orthodox hypocrites, and you and Sachiin will be in the one for the people who never listened.”
“What about you?”
“I'm already there.”
Susan followed his lead out through the bar and across the road with her bags, catching him up in the shadow of their alley park. She let herself into the car uncertainly and looked through the window at him in section, his almost disembodied hands such fearsome artifacts though powerless to effect his only meaningful desire; he stood in a darkness he saw nothing of, rain-curled bills fluttering on the walls behind him. Content to allow him the time he needed, she lay back in her seat, remonstrating mentally with Lilian and William until her companion stooped to join her.
"SUV twats." she muttered, directing his glance to the rear view mirror. The party in question had parked across the mouth of the alley some way behind them, sealing it off; he released the brake, their wheels spinning then throwing them forward over wet cardboard and rotten pallet wood into the intersecting depths of a decrepit byway. "I don't think you can get out this way..." she warned, bracing her hands against the dash at the sight of a stockade of padlocked chain-link in the gloom before them. Choosing reverse, Edward drew them backward in an arc that halted in a bay adjacent to the alley, a forgotten sinus stuffed with sodden, discarded shapes of sheenless cinder-grey, cradled by towering conjunctions of Victorian brick. Fire escapes sagged like the blackened skeletons of giant reptiles blasted in the act of scaling the rust-streaked walls on either side.
She settled back into her seat, eyes wide in the darkness while her companion drew the slender case from alongside her legs and flipped it open. Staring blankly while he locked a series of satin-black elements together in both hands, she swore as it resolved into a elongate pistol, turning to struggle with her seat belt, prompting him to pause and lock her door remotely. The headlights of the pursuing vehicle played across the lower courses of the walls before them, the alley filling with the thick chug of its engine. He kicked open the door while Susan sank down at the sight of it edging past the black mouth of the bay, sliding into the footwell as the driver swept a spot across the brick and mounds of boxes, its hueless eye burning through the windscreen on the full as it slowed to a standstill. Edward stepped out from the wall into the beam and raised his pistol to the driver's window.
Five rounds flew in bursts of silver-white and the hard, cuffing knock of struck steel, denatured by the suppressor but still so loud that she contracted into a ball and covered her head with both arms. The sound of Edward's stride preceded him; he swung the weapon to cool it as he returned, drawing open the door and bringing with him the narrow, needling smell of scorched metal.
"Get up." he told her, the words dulled by the whine in her ears. She demurred, remaining in her static hunch until his fingers changed their grip upon the gleaming object in their grasp, spurring her to crawl back quickly into her seat. He gazed at her wordlessly as he resumed his own behind the wheel. Susan sat without moving before reaching across to instate her seat belt.
The bleeding neon flare left on her retinas by muzzle-flash spared her the sight of the remaining vehicle as they edged past its tail lights. Daylight, however vestigial, flushed so much from the encounter that she found she could look out as though blameless, impunity settling around them like loosed down, sinister in its weightlessness and alkaline inside her mouth.
"Is it better when you're angry, or when you're getting paid?" she asked, the words dragging as though melted by the effort of marshaling coherence and he offered no response.
C O N T I N U E D N E X T W E E K
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce