"Mind if I grab a coffee?" Shaw called, to which he did not reply, returning to his rooms with the phone to his ear.
The house itself seemed, suddenly like something mauled as Shaw stood in the entrance hall and looked around himself, leaning out to peer into the garage, frowning at the indiscretion of his footfalls upon boards stripped of their rugs and kilims. While some larger works remained upon the papered walls, many had been taken down, the panelling arrayed instead with a piled and tottering assortment of émigré effects, the tenuous order they had so recently attained dissolved as though by the click of fickle fingers. The drawing room was crowded with a low henge of packing crates, rolled rugs and thick, blanketed stacks of plaster frames. He pushed a hand down into the neck of his sweatshirt to lift a tiny camera by its lanyard, snapping a quick shot of the scene, the uninspired precepts of his training imposing priority upon his impulses, leading him to conclude that fresh intelligence would serve his interests as well as any other course of action.
The very silence prompted him to pause inside the passage outside Edward's library, though he had circled the property twice over in an intimate regard for his own safety. A large portion of the bibliographic collection still occupied the shelves, but it was the slim black laptop that relieved him with its presence on the ebonized desk in the beam of his torch. Pulling out the chair, he pushed a silver drive into its flank, resting his hands on the edge of the table as the software he had introduced began to dismantle its security. The burnt, ashy black scent of ancient ink and handmade paper was married to the smell of warmed-through plastic arising from the computer; he flashed the room with his camera and slid it back into his pocket, looking back down at the screen.
Wind flattened Susan’s hair, whipping it across her cheeks as she sat in Edward's car with its windows yawning open, the battering almost a solace to her, the smell of Siobhan’s revenant gore rising from her collar firing fluttering red images against her lids. Her gaze wandered to her companion's hands upon the steering wheel, their strange beauty gloved almost entirely in blood cured black by the night that roared and whistled in her ears. That he was hardly more than the glacial stranger of their first encounter impressed on her the distance at which he still lay, and that she might not live long enough to improve that shallow perception.
"It's when you're angry." she admitted, prompted to answer her own question, and fully conscious of its ironies. "It's better when you're angry." Edward looked back at her, wearing the darkness as he did the blood, and she felt the same black union on her own face, shadow and streetlight drawn in turn across their faces by their passage.
Commoriom Drive passed by without attracting her notice until they slowed between the gates. Even to Susan the house seemed complicit in Lilian's absence, appearing almost diffident, as though attempting to make good the loss with its material constancy; they coasted along the wandering slope of the drive to a standstill before the garage. Easing herself from her seat with the grubby drawstring sack, she refused his attempt to relieve her of the stinking canvas as the hallway door flew open at them, William whipping the cigarette from his mouth and exclaiming at her harrowed demeanour.
"What the fuck is this?" he demanded of his brother angrily. "She's supposed to be recovering, not going on satanic fucking rampages, you sadistic prick!"
"I am recovered." she sighed, sitting down on the bundled loot she had dumped at his feet and drawing hard on his cigarette.
"Call Aubjerjonois. Get his ETD." Edward instructed. William resisted active compliance until his brother demanded to know why.
“You’re always bitching me out about him playing both sides... the cartels are looking to jump him, he's got neckfuckers on him every other day... it’s not a good time." They argued the point in their own tongue until Susan raised her own weary exception.
“I'm not going to France.”
"You have to go somewhere, Christabel, right now, thanks to superfuck here... you don't have the papers to run with us."
“Leave with Auberjonois or go home on your own passport." Edward told her from the door.
She looked up at her remaining companion.
“You said you trusted Gideon." she sighed.
"Yes, okay...” William confessed. "I trust him. I just hate admitting it." She threw away the cigarette and hoisted herself to her feet.
"Then call him."
Susan trailed the stench of violence on her clothing along the corridor, frowning dimly at the randomized clutter through which she was forced to thread until she came upon the library, the room's dim, ensconcing isolation as sympathetic as she had hoped. She sat down in Edward's chair, stroking the heavy lid of her left eye, staring so long at the telephone in her hand that the number she recalled became a droning mantra. The sound of her parka sleeve moving against her side seemed more decisive than it was; she lowered her arm again, the appliance resting on her thigh, sniffing hard. Almost without deciding, she began to dial the international code, dismissing the price of the call from her considerations. It rang for a long time before it was answered by a voice half-shouting over music.
“Hello... is Fergus there? Fergus, or Jules?” she asked, listening to it echo at the other end of the line.
“Fergus... he left, what... three months ago? Got work in Oz... he’s gone love, sorry.” replied the male respondent.
“What about Jules? She’s still there, isn’t she?”
“Nah, she’s well out of it.”
“Jules is fucking the landlord!” someone called in the background; the remark provoked a round of jeering laughter from those within earshot.
“Sounds long distance...” the other assured them. The music was turned down. “Who’s this then?”
“It’s Susan... Can I just... I...” She could hear him turning back to his companions, the rough sound of his palm against the receiver as he passed her name over his shoulder. Someone else began arguing over possession of the telephone and the call was disconnected, the music and the voices replaced by a dead grey buzz. She set it down on the desk and slid her hands beneath her arms, her nose dripping onto her sleeves. She could not have named the cue that lifted her head and turned it; glancing past her elbow, Susan slid down from the chair, drawn to the slender plane of darkness behind the half-open door. It creaked softly on its hinges as she pulled the handle toward herself.
Shaw’s left hand cradled the heel of his right, his pistol staring a black eye at her forehead. He was surprised by her battered state, her dusk-blue hair both rucked and pasted down over her head, the grime smudged over her cheeks darkening the demi-lune shadows beneath her eyes. She brought her hand up to wipe her nose.
“It gets harder, the longer you wait.” she said quietly, the moments paying out like silk behind a spider and proving the wisdom of her postulate, until he could neither fire nor lower the weapon without material concession. “You wouldn’t make it to the front door anyway...” she added, still unblinking. "And you know what they'll do, once they get you." The rolling yaw engendered by her observation stole mass from the gun in his hands, rendering it in useless outline as though she had snatched it from his grasp. Susan let him suffer as long as she could enjoy that pallid satisfaction, then stepped back, her hand still on the door. "Just go. I've had enough for one night." she murmured. His instincts seized the bitter clemency before he could confuse it with argument; she nodded down at his waist and reached out, palm upturned. “Phone, gun... keys... everything.”
When he hesitated, she took a breath as though to call out, looking to the ceiling, and Shaw pressed the weapon into her hand, a quick inventory of his pockets yielding the other items she’d requested, and she stepped back, allowing him to conclude their transaction with the swift, inglorious discretion of a decamping felon. She sat back down in Edward's chair and counted him out through the front door, along the driveway and down the road, then pushed back from the desk.
Lukewarm coffee slopped from the flask Josephine dumped on the seat beside her as she lifted her infrared visor, striking the windscreen with its rims in her haste to resolve the pale shape of Shaw's private vehicle. Stepping out into the darkness of the clearing, she kicked her way through dead grass to the edge of the level ground; the four wheel drive parked at the foot of the hill jerked forward across the verge and turned a tight circle on the seal, planing sideways in the mud by the overgrown wall and spinning its wheels. She flipped open her phone and dialed Shaw's primary line, then the car itself while it sped away, lampless, along Commoriom Drive. The second call was accepted as the vehicle became a blur through the honed glass.
"What the hell are you doing, Shaw?" The open line crackled dimly but she heard movement in the cab before the call was terminated.
Josephine threw her visor into the car and slammed the door after herself, dialing another number and demanding immediate priority over the sounds of ignition.
William sat on the foot of his bed with her bag and the new pack that Edward had chosen for her, phone pressed to his ear by his shoulder. A few larger pieces of furniture had left dusty voids amid the chaotic remainder of his belongings, but precious little had been uplifted.
"Everything's still here! What were you doing all bloody day?" she cried.
“Auberjonois’ waiting for us. Does this look like everything?” he asked, inviting her to examine the bags.
"I don't know... what do I need?" She shrugged off her dirty parka as she ransacked the adjoining bathroom, returning to stuff handfuls of toiletries into the lid of the pack. Having discharged the impulse, she made herself still and pressed her eyes closed. "Just... be quiet, for a minute." she insisted, grasping the tail of her departing nerve. "I caught Shaw doing something... in the library." He let the phone fall. "He's a nark... I let him go. I'm sorry."
His reaction encompassed something more than the dismay she had expected, extending past her toward the footfalls that bore his brother down the hall toward them; she grasped her face in her hand while they regarded one another over her head.
"I said I'm sorry, alright?" she told Edward.
"How long's he been gone?" William asked.
"Maybe... ten minutes... I don't know... I took his phone..."
The brothers consulted one another in brief terms; Edward disappeared the way he had come and William hauled the pack onto his back while she stared at him, struck by the accord effected so swiftly by the exchange.
"We're not coming back here... if you need it and can carry it, get it now." he told her, tearing out the drawer from the bedside cabinet and dumping its contents onto the mattress.
"Not coming back here? This is everything you own!"
"It doesn't matter."
"Yes it does!" She stared around herself in desperation, kicking into the pile of clothing on the floor beside the bed and tearing free favourites that she wound into a ball and stuffed into her tote.
"Christabel... vite! Grouille-toi!" he urged, returning from the door to take her wrist and drag her down the stairs.
Out in the garden, he stood listening with his head bowed and his eyes closed.
"What is it?" she whispered, scanning the parterre.
The implications escaped her momentarily.
"Coming here?" He was forced to go after her as she marched back into the house. Defeated utterly by the sight of so many hapless possessions, Susan seized a battered silver candle stick from one of the crates in a despairing gesture. William dragged her out through the drawing room, forced to lift her from the ground when she planted her feet against the removal. "You can't just leave it! Where are we going?" she cried, tearing free of him and turning to stare up at the house. It loomed pale and stoic through her flooded gaze. William held out his hand to her.
"Somewhere else." he promised. "A'ma, avai'sahdi."
Imagined or not, the wind rolling in from the south conveyed proof enough to sweep her resistance aside and they moved as one, breaking into a run halfway across the parterre. The pool lay tranquil in its midst, their empty bottles standing around the sun lounge from which her towel hung in a thick drape. They rounded the corner of the orchard, ducking and pushing through the walls of the magnolia lane into the tangled stand beyond. It had overgrown all plans and paths in its wild dominion, weaving the dead and living into a dense, dew-dripping thatch that left the boles and lower branches bare. Nettles struck her calves as she fled through the yellowed smell of decay, leaping curling roots and fallen timber, breathless by the time they found the boundary wall. Where a rotten trunk had crashed through half its height William climbed up and offered his hand, but she had already tossed her burdens over the barrier and scrambled up a limb, leaping down into the wet, thigh-high grass and the bitter scent of the dock crushed underfoot in the neighbouring lot. The thudding she thought she had heard became an undeniable reality, still distant but closing as it sifted through the branches; she snatched up the candlestick and jogged backward past the oaks leaning out over the wall, panting as she searched the darkness yawning overhead.
"Your brother..." she whispered.
"He'll be fine." he told her, walking her back to the wall where the narrow stripe of clear ground at its foot left no sign of their direction. The unfamiliar yard was as enormous and neglected as their own, the distant house long-empty; at its corner they scaled the brick and came out in another cul de sac, its clipped verge indicating occupancy. Susan walked with her head down between the street lights toward the only visible vehicle, glancing to either side of them at the tall gates and foot-lit drives. The modest silver sedan uttered an electronic warning at their approach; William paused at its side, drew back his arm and put an elbow through the window.
It was the blown, wet-stone smell of dawn and the blanched and aqueous colours assumed by the morning already birthed beyond the curve of the horizon that woke Susan, to the prospect she had deferred. The interior of the unfamiliar vehicle redoubled the sense of displacement already gathered around her like a stranger's garment, its grey weight small welcome to day. They were parked alongside a broad field of asphalt and a half-dozen private aircraft, blank-eyed, standardized steeds. Dust and avgas vapour swept through the tall chain link beside them; she sat without moving, gazing through the window at William, who stood before the barrier, making a thorough survey of their surrounds. The set of his shoulders expressed both the diligence of the precaution and the disinclination with which he struggled and he brought it back to the car as he sat down. Words came slowly to her, volunteering themselves in a reluctant shuffle, like creatures summoned out of hiding.
"What's the time?"
"Six. How did he take the Frost news?" he asked, picking burrs from the edge of her skirt.
"Better than I expected, at first, but then he... it wasn't... good."
“Did you get the gooseberry eye?” He mimed it for her. She nodded. “After that, you’ve got about eight seconds before body parts start pinging off the ceiling.”
"I know that now."
Susan opened the glovebox before her then tried to cram it shut, too late to stem the flow of wet wipes, hair ties and brightly-cased singalong CDs into her lap. Together they stared down at the alien artifacts, William grimacing as they returned them to their lair.
"This is why I don't steal cars... now I feel like we've got soccer practice, and then we have to pick up Maddison and Emily from ballet." They shuddered together and he smiled, almost hesitantly, though her expression pushed his own back into distress and he drummed a foot on the floor of the car. "Christabel... ishah y'li sidati... I can’t let you go if you’re not dealing with this better than I am.”
"I am." she sighed, digging through the contents of her bag. He watched her, smiling briefly.
“How long will you take to get into Auberjonois once you're in the air?"
“I don't know." she replied absently, looping the strap of her bag over her head. "I'll have to wait for the seatbelt sign." Susan leant across to take his chin in her hand; he closed his eyes while she painted lipstick on his mouth with careful strokes, moving only as she leant forward and kissed the colour onto her own. "We have to go...” She conceded the syllables in exchange for another slow taste of him, her hand loath to relinquish his neck.
Dust flew from their footsteps as they strode across the gravel verge and he stooped to wrench the chain link free of the ground, holding it up for her. Susan rose on the other side, brushing off the sharp stones pressed into her palms, her face beaten colourless by the cold wind. Once more she felt the drag of the ineluctable current that had already borne her so far out into terra incognita that it eroded the very certainty of the ground beneath her feet, the distant, industrial drone clashing with her thoughts like static. Gideon’s aircraft was a sleek work of cold white art upon the tarmac; a fat fuel truck disengaged from it and rolled away slowly, an orange light flashing on the roof of its cab. The plane was larger than her worst expectations but did not approach those far more comforting dimensions of her limited experience, lit softly gold from within, its owner standing in the curve of a doorway set deeply into the fuselage.
“Don't go back to the house." she murmured to William, brushing the dust from her bag. They halted at the foot of the slightly battered set of steps.
"It'll be taped off by now."
“I might never see you again, either... these fucking death traps crash all the...” William lifted a hand to her mouth against the portentous nature of the observation; she took it in her own then between her teeth, and he bent to embrace her. She held him so tightly that his bones began to hurt her arms as Gideon descended the steps toward them, tugging down his cuffs and smoothing a hand over his head. Winding a length of William's hair around her fingers, she yanked it free, closing it in her fist when he set her down and rubbed his head. “If I don’t see you again, I’ll find a witch and curse you. How do you say goodbye?"
"We don't, really. Is Pet with you?" he asked their host, keeping hold of her hand.
"She is inside, asleep already. That colour, it is wonderful on you." Gideon smiled at the faint, wandering shade of coral on his lips. "An you look very lovely tonight, Sussan.” he added, casting an eye over her grimy, blood-spattered person. William crooked a finger at him, to which he smiled again, inquisitive.
“If she tells me that you or anyone else so much as looked at her the wrong way, I’ll neuter your whole sleazy fucking tribe with the same teaspoon. Je suis fucking sincére. T'as intérêt à lui coller aux basques sinon ça va barder pour toi."
“Have no fear. She is in good hands, bijoux... the best hands. You may find she does not want to leave... then what will you do?”
“I just told you, so write it down.”
"Bonsoir, serpent-visage.” Gideon called, fluttering a hand at the warning finger William kept pointed at him as they ascended the steps.
“Bon débarras, grenouille stupide.” the latter replied.
Gideon swept Susan’s luggage from her grasp, shepherding her into the plane before she could further delay their departure. Its interior was a secluded study in dense, bewildering, transplanted luxury, its perfumed air as warm as blood against her face and neck, the curving cabin panels lined with a caramel skin of dappled maple and reclining chairs in black, glove-soft Italian leather. Luc and Étienne sat behind automotive magazines and comics in the rear; they smiled up at her from beneath their headphones. Gazing along the narrow aisle, Susan chose a seat behind the door, the soft squab deflating slowly beneath her as she sank down.
On the tarmac William lifted his T-shirt from his stomach to wipe his streaming eyes, still weeping as he let it fall and walked slowly backward, hands clasped on his head. She pressed her lips to the double pane as Gideon sat down beside her, looking past her shoulder.
“Look at him... crying, comme un grand enfant." he chuckled. “What is this?” She glanced down at the fist imprisoning the hair from William’s head, unfurling her fingers; to her dismay, her palm held only translucent dust, like finely-powdered glass. He tisked. “Per'aps you were holding it too tightly.”
The engines roared on either side of them, pressing her back into the seat, their velocity climbing exponentially and without preamble until the floor tilted away from the tarmac. The jet followed its nose into the air, turning a half-circle over the brightly glowing city and its dark blue arc of hills.
E N D O F P A R T O N E
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce