T h e
B l a c k t h o r n O r p h a n s
Si jeunesse savait; si vieillesse pouvait.
I do not have a mill with willow trees.
I have a horse, I have a whip.
I will kill you,
for James and Charlotte,
who already know.
DA and BG,
p r o l o g u e
S I L V E R
A shaft of waning sunlight swam with flashing motes no larger than the dust blown from a bird’s wing by the vicissitudes of flight, floating over three warm-blooded bodies. In the gloom it was possible to dimly mark the shapes of careless limbs and profiles arranged on the disordered bed. In lying amid three women William had curled against the tallest in his sleep, pale forehead to her powdered shoulder, his long fingers flexing in the narrow crescent space between his stomach and the small of her back. The sunwarmed, saline scent of female flesh, imbued in the consoling softness of her bare skin and glowing in his emptied head, kept his eyes closed and he ceased to breathe, listening to her heart throb slowly in its nest of arching vessels, the courteous reciprocation of its seals and chambers. He listened also through the mattress and the floor to the feeble stirrings of the dead, lying not within their graves but in the storeys below, secreted like silk-wrapped larvae; then to water, trickling and coursing through the stone of the distant foundations on its ancient way toward the sea. A copse of candles burnt down to tilting stubs atop a tansu chest at the foot of the bed, their wax spilling across the black lacquer and dripping slowly onto a little electronic keyboard, its keys already soaked with purple syrah. Beside it stood a wooden box half-filled with kesar mangoes, the sweet promise of their sunset colours contended by their perfume.
He was roused by the persisting vibration of a telephone, buzzing against his cheek like a pinioned wasp until he rolled slowly onto his back with his eyes still closed, fetching up against another of his slumberous companions. She moved her feet but their spike heels were immured in the roll of dark blue linen at the end of the bed.
William cleared his throat; he could taste vodka, eau de parfum and all three women.
“Just at the moment... I'd have to say no.” he murmured into the telephone.
"Get some scissors and cut that fucking laminate in half. No more backstage for you.” declared the respondent.
“Frost... how can you be so cold, so early in the morning?” he smiled lazily. The two girls lying in each others' arms beside him stirred at the sound of his complaint; all three were powdered with fine chromed glitter, a fresh puff flushed into the air by their movement. Their hair, so artfully arranged into towering futuristic bouffants by a legion of aestheticians, had unravelled into silky, silver-streaked chaos that was not without it’s own allure.
“It’s after six, you lazy fuck. Peel the bitches off and put them in a cab."
He lifted his head.
“I’ve got Lila and Mina and... I think Lauren. I was minding my own business with Lila and Mina, and... she hit us pretty hard... have you seen her from behind? And jesus christ... I swear she can take her teeth out.”
“Let me tell you about my day, asshole."
"Frost..." he sighed, laying a hand over his face. "Don't be like that... détendez-vous..."
"I lost my three biggest girls right after the show, their bookers are reaming me on three lines, they’re totally uninsured and the fucking kraut designer's going into fucking labour because we’re three major pieces short for a flight to fucking Frankfurt in an hour.” The caller took a long, audible drag on a cigarette and leant out of earshot to reassure a companion. The concept of exigence percolated downward through the elements of his confusion. His left arm refused to be recalled and he glanced up at the headboard's painted scene of gilt blossom and cranes to find a handcuff encircling his wrist.
“So... er... what?"
“Call them a fucking car!”
“Drivers won’t come to this hood.”
“Where are you?”
He looked up at the deeply-stepped cornice briefly.
"Fucking A-Town?” He shrugged while the caller deplored his living arrangements. “The bitches can walk home, but you, put anything silver and all the shoes in a fucking car and send them to the store, right now. And you’re blacklisted.”
He let his free hand fall back onto his forehead.
“You don’t mean that, Frosty... je voudrais que tu sois ici...” he purred, smiling again at the thought of her expression.
“Lamb, get your whore voice out of my head and get the shit here or I’m gonna fucking cut it off.”
Still clad in some of the garments to which the caller referred, two thirds of the three stretched out together, shrugged each other off and sat up slowly, breasts lapsing against the metallic vinyl of their sinuous caprisons, their brevity serving the exactions of their infamous trapeze performances. The girl to his left, the most ample of the three, had shaken herself free of the bed entirely and stood naked, diamonds pinned to the most arresting features of her bloomy silhouette and forming a blinking constellation as she moved. Reaching up, she slid her fingers into her hair and shook it loose, standing with her hands on her hips to gaze at the narrow cage beside the wall and its trio of avian inmates. She bent to fetch the silver corsetry that had been stripped from her.
“Ladyboy chickens...” she suggested.
William turned his hand in the cuff and tried in vain to free it.
“What’s the time?”
“Six twenty eight. Like, p.m. I am so late for a fitting.” the girl sighed. The difference between the cool, pelagic greens in each of his eyes became far more pronounced with the sudden change of their expression. He inhaled swiftly and consulted his handset.
“Nai ani’iya...” he breathed. "Keys... I need the keys.”
With the remainder of its occupants he rolled from the bed and together they tossed the sheets for the key to his cuffs, coming up instead with a fistful of tulip-stamped pills, a violet wand, lipgloss tubes and a jelly-pink, glitter-studded vibrator. The ephemera flew into the air and clattered onto the parquet. The trapeze girls dropped to their knees in search of their own accoutrements, forgetting William’s difficulty, and he exploited their distraction to bust the cuff chain with a swift jerk of his arm, wincing as the board cracked. Sweeping his trousers from the curtain rail, he hustled the trio from the room, shaking the contents of his wallet onto the floor of the lounge while they slid into their coats, the margins of their fabulous ensembles still gleaming on their wrists and ankles in the sunset admitted by the glass of the balcony door. Lauren, bag of burlesque props stuffed under her arm, caught his head in both hands and sucked his chin as he stuffed hundred dollar bills into her coat.
“Go out through the fence, then two blocks north to the first rank you see... tell the driver you’re with Edward Lamb.”
“You’re William.” Lila insisted.
“I know, but listen... don’t talk to anyone on the street... walk walk walk and don’t stop. Frost’s waiting at the store for your gear... go straight to the boutique.” he told her, holding the door for the smiling women. They blew kisses and flashed a number of their bountiful gifts at him as they hurried down the corridor and crowded into the elevator.
Out on the balcony his tall shape was darkly mirrored by black stone fascia while he waited for the women to emerge from the foot of the building, leaning over the chromed railing and the eight floor drop. With the sun's retirement the street was deeply shaded by a beetling suite of elderly apartment blocks, and empty of pedestrians; the girls formed radiant foci against the pavement and it was not long before footfalls began to trouble it behind them. A small, dark, stooping figure took up their trail with an intent that compensated for the lameness of its gait. William parked his cigarette in the corner of his mouth and leant back through the sliding door, lifting an air rifle free of the drapery. The neighbourhood enjoyed the quiescence afforded by its evil reputation and a quick aural scan revealed nothing to give him pause. Down on the street the hunching figure had begun to close on the heedless women, bent almost double over its own feet by the intemperance of its designs. Blowing away smoke, William took aim and shot a hunting pellet at the back of it’s head.
Spinning about, his target lurched back at once toward the building it had spilled from, lifting a sickly, chalk-white scowl toward the sky and chittering a string of interlaced obscenities. Its persecutor crouched behind the railing, smiling as he listened to the slighted fury fulminating on the pavement, its cracked, archaic aspect lending grotesque emphasis.
“Ah harken ye, ye slimeh dink bastard!” it shrieked up at him. "Ye durn hunker theya all ye fuckin please, cause ahm a' commin up t'ye!"
William returned to the lounge while his accuser re-invaded the foyer and commandeered the creaking, uncertain elevator. Both hands plumbed his trouser pockets for the key to the front door until he spied it on the atrium floor and worked it into the lock, just as the sounds of turgid discontent spilled out into the corridor outside. For good measure, he coaxed a heavy bombé commode across the door. Thus indemnified, he stood with hands on hips and made a brief survey of the apartment. Its cool, paneled seclusion was stocked with an elegant, if somewhat dissociative sufficiency of Georgian and French furnishings, none of which belonged to him. Their disarray prompted him to drag a garbage bag from the kitchen and begin stuffing something of the detritus into its depths. Grainy white powder coating a tea tray on the floor between the sofa and a daybed prompted him to lift it to his face and press a thumb against one nostril, eyes rolling back toward the door as he was addressed by its thwarted assailant.
“Fuckin cap meh, will ye?" the creature hissed into the lock. "Well hear yee... ahm e-victin ye skank-pokin ass... yew an ye fuckin no-count absentee repr'bate broth'r! Here ah go, nailin it up aroun six four so he kint miss a cock-suckin word. Heh heh heh.”
William resumed his languid struggle with the room, shuffling unresolvable items into a mass that he shepherded with his bare feet, wedging handbags and bottles and takeaway boxes into the sack in his passage toward the bedroom. The pheasants strutted in their temporary quarters, great barred tails fraying against the wire. Throwing open the curtains, he turned back to strip the bed and commit the sheets to the cache that he coaxed toward the bathroom, stuffing it into the tub and dragging the shower curtain closed.
The tapware was silkily calmative, both to his eye and in his hands, expressing with the geometries inscribed upon the walls in veined vert marble the aloof, pre-war grandeur that so pleased him. He lowered his head into the basin, letting the water run from hair dyed noxious parrot red and roughly cut to shoulder-length, closing his eyes against the brightness of his own reflection. Mirror glass reminded him why people stared and he did not consult it with any regularity, his own face so familiar and immutable that he did not require aides-mémoires, though he remembered only belatedly that his brother was uncharacteristically overdue. At his circumspect approach the commode shuddered once, then flew across the atrium with the propulsive duress applied to the door.
Edward Lamb wore a bespoke suit of blue-black summer wool into the space that he had cleared so summarily. His demeanour held only subtle reference to the violence of his intrusion and he carried its indifference into the lounge without a glance toward his erstwhile companion, a long grey gym bag suspended from each hand. Congenital similitude rendered both the differences they had contrived and their remaining correlations striking. While the human eye slid no more easily over his features than they did William's, he had taken more care to subsume their singularity, modeling his disguise on the most anonymous of their surrounding clades, inclusive of those finely-drawn brutalities and vacancies that were an easy match for his native array. The notice to quit had been plastered to the door with packing tape and couched in a crabbed and gloating scribble by an author who had reconsidered spectating its receipt. William took out his cigarette papers and drifted back into the lounge where he sat down, tucked his hair behind his ear and began to roll a joint.
Shedding his jacket, Edward laid it on the sofa and ejected a long blade from the black knife in his hand, stabbing it deeply into the daybed and slitting the sombre damask along its length. From the mask of riven flock he extracted blocks of shrink-wrapped bank notes, dumping them into the bags laid out behind him then repairing to the bedroom where he subjected the mattress to the same callous procedure. Out in the hall, a portion of its rectilinear paneling revealed a shallow niche from which he removed a stack of ammunition boxes and a half-stripped Thompson Annihilator dressed in dust and matted silken webs. With them stowed in the bags he set a chair beneath the manhole, using it to attain the vacant attic and drawing himself swiftly out of sight into its darkness.
From his seat in the lounge William followed the ponderous crackle and rasping drag of weighted plastic through the ceiling plaster; it passed overhead toward the east above an adjoining apartment and died away. He bowed his head and re-lit his cigarette. On returning to the hallway Edward subjected each room to a last inspection. William leant back in his chair and expressed a plume of smoke.
“I’m not dragging my shit down a hundred floors because a bloodsucker has a prolapse.” he advised. In reply, his brother set down the bags in the atrium, took the door of the apartment in both hands and wrenched it off its hinges, leaving it beside the frame. He was gone by the time William leant out to look both ways along the passage, flicking his cigarette at the cackle leaking through the door of the opposite suite.
The sleek copper flank of the bar was cold against Edward’s knee like the hide of a torpid dragon as he wished he had issued his brother’s photograph to the door staff. William sucked emerald jelly shots from the wrists and cleavage of the girl serving their drinks; the spillage dropped over the edge of the counter onto the slightly ragged, belted tartan of his kilt. His blazing hair was tied up in a high knot over a T-shirt stenciled with the word kafir in petrol-pink. The brunette smirked, admitting him under the counter to the mirrored space beyond, rebuffing a colleague’s complaint with a gesture and leading him into the stock room.
Midnight had lured a more fashionable element out of restaurants and openings elsewhere to dilute the bridge and tunnel stock allowed to exhaust their paycheques in their absence; a headcount had sealed Edward's decision to eschew the venture before he was joined by a short and zaftig woman bound tightly in burnt pink Chanel. She used his arm to assist her onto the stool beside him, acrylic nails almost as long as the fingers behind them. Sinister volumes of tuberose absolute fumed from her person, lifted in a vapour from the cold surface of her skin by the heat of the downlights. She stared at him with thickly-lashed eyes the colour of carbonised hardwood.
“I've talked to the owners and they're gratifyingly desperate. They’ll comp us for the first month during handover... anything you put through the books after that runs at the standard rate.” the woman informed him, her expression sharpening her unsolicited advice into direction. On the night of her death Opal La Rue had been closer to sixty than she would ever acknowledge; the knit suit followed the smooth, gourd-like undulations of her torso closely, covered buttons providing little points of visual relief and underscoring the contrast between the fulsome curvature of her central mass and its dainty extremities. In spite of her zealous deportment she possessed an uncomfortable fusion of zoological attributes, from the de-beaked angle of her tormented nose to the argute, porcine cunning that glittered in her gaze. Her ammoniated hair had been hardened to a glassy turn by lacquer and colours outside life’s gentler palette adorned her face. "I can run agency cattle through this place like it's a feedlot without a single DoL issue, and use it monday tuesday wednesday for wholesale... it's two blocks from Avalon so I can practically walk them in here off the boat." she gloated. "So I've given them a provisional yes..."
“I’m not interested.” Edward replied, his voice possessing all the informative qualities of rock crystal. The woman searched for something in the remark that might defray its obdurate nature, but a television starlet in a brief white dress stood behind them, awaiting her attention with the kind of servile patience and nervous sweat that turned Opal around atop the stool.
“Oh dear god Amelia.” she scolded, taking a tiny plastic package from her handbag and pushing it into her hesitant grasp. “Drop two sizes before you come off hiatus.” The girl’s doe-eyed face fell at the instruction, and she tucked her hair behind her ears. Opal rolled her eyes to the ceiling and turned back to the bar. “Edward, if you want to see what I can do for you, you're going to have to take one hand off the wheel. And tell me please that you did not pay cash for that rat pit in the hills.” He did not reply. “Of course you did.” she muttered, disgusted. "Rubber band banking again... well then, I’m going need some paintings. I've got New England buyers coming down and they're chasing scale. No red, no yellow. Austerity." The corners of her small mouth angled sharply downward. "If you’re giving up the apartment, at least that creature you call a brother will have to find a dumpster somewhere else. Looks like we were able to keep him out of here...”
Emerging from the stockroom, the bargirl entered her number on William's phone and reapplied her lipgloss while he wiped the same shade from his mouth, coming over to lean heavily upon the bar and offering Opal a smile laden with antipathy. Their antagonism sprang from more than her role as impresario to his brother's public affairs, though her enterprise was as renowned for the depravity of its expediencies. He polished two shot glasses on his T-shirt, poured two liberal measures of pale spirit then knocked both back; the woman grimaced, watching his long tongue catch a drip from his chin.
“Opal... I can understand how this happened..." he admitted, eyeing her apparel. "It was a yard sale, you were exhausted... maybe there’s a sense of humour under that rugged exterior after all. But why the fuck are you trying to sell him this shiny pleather überdump?" He addressed his brother in a language Opal could not understand, its interfluent syllables broken by a single familiar profanity. "If you really want to fight bent liquidators for money you can’t legally explain, just open a fucking gallery.”
“I know the security here.” she snarled. He shrugged.
“I only know their girlfriends.”
Edward had disappeared from her side by the time she saw fit to resume their lopsided colloquy, and William allowed her to stalk away without further provocation. Taking the bottle, he ducked back under the bar and exclaimed to himself as his brain supplied the feeling that its mass had slithered forward in his skull; he waved a hand before his eyes, counting off its many avatars before they were resolved. He stood still and pondered the voluptuous sensations, the darkness assuming secret, velvety modalities, pressing and retreating, flashing and then spiriting away the faces massed around him. The lustre of a stranger’s bare-skinned shoulder as she passed him closed his eyes and turned them inward, upon a scene suddenly elected out of distant memory, lit with an enclosing myriad of candles and the shallow, fulminating brilliance of paste jewels, perfumed by white lead powder, beeswax and distilled jasmine. The ghost of a smile moved the woman in his arms as they turned, swept by the great beaded skirts of other dancers, their whispering silk sliding by under the flight of the music that expanded to fill the high-domed hall with its dim panels of plate mirror. She smiled again, making a mockery of the gesture with dark laughter from which the sound had been erased, too painful to recall. Her white fingers tightened on his shoulder, discovering his bones.
With the opening of his eyes the vision and its faint score faded, merging with the pulsing bass surrounding him. It occurred to William that he had emerged from darkness largely innocent of lamplight into a burnt-out modernity where night was flushed like a pathology from its domain, and he briefly rued the transition. A pair of acquaintances slid by and he nodded to their greeting while the DJ drew the faders down in favour of a floor show.
The crowd formed around the pool of blue light glowing on the ground and ornamented by a single male figure, lean and unclothed and crouching spiderlike, skin draped over an addict’s framework. The sound of the paint can agitated in his grasp lapsed as he sprayed a perimeter around himself, an acid-yellow tie of the same hue hanging from his neck. When he stood it became obvious that few parts of his person had escaped the cannula, his penis so heavily embellished with silver bijoux that it sagged considerably; William frowned faintly, regretting the vantage conferred by his stature. The artiste began rolling and moaning in earnest, wide eyes possessed of a bulging gelatinous rapture and reminding him of aspic, then cow's hooves, then refectory tables dressed with ponderous brocades and groaning under spitted porpoise meat and coffin-like pyes studded with plums and cloves. A hypnotic litany tumbled from the performer's mouth in piteous falsetto; he grasped his genitals and made a prancing circuit of the stage, stretching the end of the tie into a noose and whipping his thin voice into a howling, plangent crescendo until the wave of babble peaked and he lay salivating in a feigned dementia, arms out in rigored cruciform. The crowd exchanged whispers and retreated, while William pressed his face into his hands, excruciated by the effort of containing his amusement. Taking one more look between his fingers, he gave it up and succumbed to a fit of laughter.
It produced a dilemma for the most distant onlookers, some convinced he was an adjunct to the performance. To those closest to him his paroxysm was a strange and radiant contagion, turning them toward him, their sympatric chuckles spreading exponentially until a full two-thirds of the audience succumbed to the transmitted laughter. Though he held two hands over his mouth, their attention had shifted to such palpable extent that the performer redoubled the volume of his cries and the bouncers consulted one another, converging on the offender like elementals from the four corners of the world. Hampered by their progress through the other patrons, they allowed evasive action; William dropped to his hands and knees, crippled by his own mirth as he negotiated the shifting copse of legs and shoes, sucking in a breath as a heel was stamped down on his hand. The bouncers lost him in the crush as miscued music swallowed the performance. He had gained the bar and was able to congratulate himself before two behemoths seized him from behind and conveyed him toward an external door.
The night outside was rank and clammy and its taste assaulted William sharply as he was dragged into a loading bay, punched three times for good measure and abandoned by his escorts. A cigarette dropped from his lips in the mouth of the alley, and he cursed and patted down his person in search of another. Beneath the bright red canopy over the entrance a woman in a slim black trench glanced toward him from her conversation with the doorman, glaring for a moment before ignoring him. William smiled, arms hanging by his sides in an attitude of wide-eyed solicitation; by the time she looked again he had moved the performance five steps closer and infused it with a dewy pathos that hardened her expression further. Her eyes were pale and darkly-painted, her face washed with a slowly-flashing blue from a light across the street. The length of her silver-blonde hair was concealed beneath the collar of her coat.
"It's shit in there anyway." he assured her, a statement the doorman was unable to contest, and she joined William on the footpath, taking a cigarette from her handbag. He suffered another of her disaffected gazes.
"Fucking Lauren left three grand's worth of shoe in the cab.” she informed him.
"So take me back to your place and teach me a lesson I'll never forget." he smiled.
"It's like three blocks to yours."
"Frost, there's an accommodation situation... I just talked my brother out of buying this shitbox here and to show his fucking gratitude he's putting me out of A-town like I scooted on the Wall Street Journal." he complained. They turned and began walking together slowly, stepping round the drift of steam from a kitchen vent beside the alley.
"You don't even have a brother."
"If only that were so."
"I've never seen him... I don't know anyone who knows him... that makes him imaginary, or an autistic fucking sasquatch."
"Let's change the subject."
"You brought him up." She shook the bangles on her right arm, knowing their metallic chatter nettled him; he caught her wrist and stilled them with a frown. "Is he hot?"
"No. I got all the pretty."
"He's rich though, right?"
"No. He's a... fiscally challenged... bukkake fiend with... two lazy eyes and eight chins. I don't like to talk about it." he sighed as they came to an intersection. "I should just introduce you. You could blowtorch his discretionary income and he could scar you emotionally and you'd never accuse me of holding out on you again."
"So what's his fucking problem?"
A car slowed by her while its driver leant on the horn and out the window, expressing lascivious appreciation; she turned and lifted the front of William's kilt, terminating the exchange. Growing impatient with the lights, they walked together into the coasting traffic, paying no heed to the abuse attracted by their transection.
"It's complicated... with little to no nutritional value."
"I'll comp him just for busting you out of that janky-ass building. Avalon is full of chuds and kitten-fuckers."
"Su casa... mi casa?" he proposed.
"Did I say no? I meant hell no." she laughed.
"One week? Frosty... five working days? Allez, puta..."
When she remained recalcitrant he turned in a pall of neon and threatened her with the hem of his kilt.
Wind, sweeping ceaselessly against the mountain on which Sachiin kneeled flapped the heavy layers of silk and figured brocades swathing the women before him, as though giving voice to their impatience. The priestesses struck his eyes as burning shapes that held the same terror in smoking purple negative when he closed them. He bowed his head, wary even of the detail in their pale hands and the repeats and roundels of their robes, their colours shrill in the morning sun. Like a second skin was the white clay painted on their foreheads and down over their wrists, hands, fingers, daubed even over their curving nails. It softened the sound of thick metals and jade as their bangles clashed together, the scolding chime of the tasseled silver pendants fluttering from combs atop their hair and around the repoussé tableaux of their diadems, impressed with warring deer and felines. He was accustomed to their baffling majesty and knew them to be trophies wrested from distant, reviled entities; Yuezhi and Wuhuan, Sogdians and Xiongnu, names he had never heard, their nomads as ruthlessly despoiled as their royal emissaries. It was the great crescent of lapis lazuli strung from the neck of the foremost priestess that instilled dread, its hypnotic colour found nowhere else in their wild domain, not in the two unvarying shades of their eyes, nor in the glaucous, ice-fed lakes, or even in the open sky of violet white; beloved of their fatal goddess, it was a herald of her distant nightmare realm. All this Sachiin had beheld to a greater or lesser degree, so oppressed by their intent upon him that he scarcely comprehended their questioning.
The wind began to shift the flakes of scree around his knees, their skittering passage underscoring the priestess's impatience. He looked up once more, their acid-hued eyes burning away his nerve.
"Are you your mother’s child, Sachiin?"
"I am." he replied.
"I ask again. Where is your brother Kala'amātya?" She spoke the name with violent distaste.
"My brother is by the lake." he murmured finally.
"Go now with our daughter Nyāti."
He fell in behind their acolyte, following her along a shallow, stony cirque cut by a watershed stream. Sachiin stared at the back of her clay-dressed coiffure, the endless black coils of her braids carefully daubed with white, though bare of the ornament worn by the elder members of the Sthali'sātva sisterhood. Formal distance had grown between them since her induction into their junior ranks, curtailing their exchanges. Over his shoulder, the Sthali'sātva disappeared from the ridge in the opposite direction, descending toward the tarn of his description. He tightened the waist of his dark robe, breaking from his companion to leap the stream and lope uphill, working himself into the cloven granite of an outcrop and watching the sacerdotal conclave through a split in the stone as they moved in stately, foreboding unison.
Far deeper than it was wide, the water of the tarn was darkly stained by a seam of nameless ore. As a mirror to the night sky it was reserved as the venue of recondite lunar observances, but his brother transgressed the prohibition with such regularity that the priestesses had finally apprehended him. They gathered on the shore to await his emergence. Sachiin's companion attempted to preserve decorum as she joined him in the narrow fissure. He glanced back into her golden eyes.
"Remember your star, Sachiin, and give thanks that you are not your brother." she whispered.
Two darker figures had accompanied the Sthali'sātva, mute and wreathed in drab black homespun, standing like commanded shadows behind the priestesses while the wind fretted the waters with lines of silky corrugation. Kala'amātya rose from it like something born out of its proscribed depths, his black braid settling on his back and merging with the pattern inscribed over its skin. He took up his robe and tied it about himself.
"Why does he love the water more than us?" Sachiin wondered.
"Ana'siām'ilye warns that we should not look for virtue in those made without it." Nyāti promised.
"Will they not beat him and be satisfied?"
"If you are to meet again, it will be where he is going... you cannot wish that." she told him, deploring the idea. "Say nothing of what you have seen."
By the lake, the dark male figures took up their places on either side of Kala'amātya, walking before the priestesses from the lonely stretch of water. Exile had settled on him as though his shadow had been shorn from his feet and tied about him like a shroud, transformed like the outcasts flanking him and sent toward perdition in the wastes that lapped the mountains. His brother's face, already harder than wind-harrowed stone, was crossed by the scars of punitive strokes, so intrinsic to him that they might have been innate deformity; his eyes saw nothing but what lay before him, ears deaf to admonition. The sullen veterans escorting him did so at a careful distance from his person. Sachiin glanced back at Nyāti.
"If he is not made to abide with us... could it be that he is destined for some other purpose?" he ventured softly, hoping she would support his naive logic with the dharma to which she had been admitted. She could not oblige him.
Hectic drum and bass issued in a boundless loop from five-foot speakers at the entrance to the Avalon apartment, its instrumental seizures pounding through the building's upper floors. In the opposite direction William lay on the sofa he had dragged to the balcony, enjoying sunlight dimmed intermittently by bouffant cumulo nimbus and the outrage seething coldly in those neighbours denied the arms of Morpheus by his choice of music.
His avian companions picked spiders from between the facia stone and stooped to sip from the bowl of water he had furnished. On his back, he was reminded of the decrepit building's lean toward the adjacent seaboard on the rotten sandstone of its foundations. It was this failure that had kept his landlord, and others of its antique fraternity, from the benefit of the development conflated from their colonial redoubt, the ramshackle dockside precinct half-crushed by piers of soaring pharonic stone, grandiose setbacks and Futurist friezes before the City had condemned it. Sylph-like liability had left the neighbourhood in stasis, its decrepitude quickly girded by a dark and half-fabled repute. The original speculators drew a desultory return from those preferring or requiring civil abandon and the convenience of its primitive via subterraneus, hollowed through the fateful strata.
Just as he was tiring of his own phonic demonstration, it died in mid-break with the power shorted at some distant juncture, throwing the apartment into shadow and prompting him to roll from the sofa and retrieve a bottle of vodka from the freezer box. He had drifted into a doze by the time the short clip of stiletto heels began to trouble the hall outside, the intruder inspecting the plethora of notices taped to the dislocated door, then squeezing in sideways past the speakers.
Two garbage bags lay slackly, like excised organs on the atrium floor, stuffed with clothing and personal effects; clutching her phone, the intruder loosed another message at the number she had solicited all day, using the recipient's irritant ringtone to locate the appliance where it lay face-down on the parquet. Having snatched it up, she divided her attention between scrolling through its messages and deeply suspicious incursions into neighbouring rooms. The bedroom still wore a dusting of finely-milled silver on its undisturbed surfaces; she marched her scowl out to the balcony, standing before its occupant in flame-red knit and ankle-boots, statuesque and amber blonde and stripped of body hair. William's silence pursed her plenteous lips beneath their gleaming slick of raspberry gloss.
"You're moving out of here? Don't try and lie to me!" she shouted suddenly.
As Opal La Rue’s sole extant relation, Rachel Whateley had been taken in hand by that maternal ancestor, the latter desirous of refining her appeal as an heiress into that of a fully furnished debutante with a view to securing a particular strain of suitor. This had proved fruitless upon Opal's discovery that her own acuity had been granted without heritors, but Rachel's beauty, so comprehensive and expertly nuanced, still struck William as something almost mythic, in its perfection and in its almost poignant irony. He lay in apathetic silence and watched her rummage through her bag, muttering to herself as though he had interjected.
"I said she's a hooker." she hissed.
"Where?" he murmured.
"That bitch... you know who I'm talking about..."
"Frost?" She bristled at the name.
"Forget all about moving in with her... I don't care how hard she tries. If I find out you've stayed over one more time, I'll have Opal go to the police about her. And I know all about Megan." He frowned and propped his head on the Biedermeier sweep behind him. “You know... May-gan? Five-six, ghetto implants, heavy, bad weave... the girl you had sex with last night at that disgusting bar..." One of his eyebrows ascended as he scratched the side of his neck, expression expanding into an artless, remontant delight. “Harvey warned me you'd use other women to control me, and guess what? Exactly what you're fucking doing right now.” she proclaimed, sinking down on the end of the couch and forcing him to withdraw his bare feet. Rachel's eyes were a brightly-rayed cerulean, though their tinted lenses tipped them toward violet. Her hair slid from the silken polish of her shoulder, the day beaming through its Isabella gold as she gazed up into the sun.
“Who’s Harvey?” he inquired unwillingly.
“Who’s Harvey? He’s my therapist, you fucking asshole!” Without taking his unblinking eyes from her, William reached down for the little silver pipe that had rolled into a crease beneath him and put it to his lips, bringing his lighter to its furthest end and flicking the flint wheel. Rachel gasped. "You're using, you pig? You know I'm in recovery!" The burnt scent of the amphetamines she had ingested with her breakfast melon rode her breath into his face as she snatched the pipe and tossed it over the railing. He drew his knees up to his chest.
“Rachel... I don't know what you want... honestly, I don't... you only fucked me to fuck with Opal... you thought my name was Aaron til a month ago. You don’t like me, you don't like my birds...” He nodded at the avian contingent regarding her from the railing like clockwork follies. The sun disappeared behind a cloud. “Just... give me the flick. Go hard after that hedge fund guy... the one with the duck face, you know, smells like... what is it? Compulsion... obsession? Calvin Klein Repulsion? And he probably doesn't have herpes, don't listen to me. I want you to be happy..." She hated the polymathic complexity of his voice, his English subverted by French vowels, Arabic hiatus and other, stranger anomalies. The neck of her knit dress had fallen open over the tanned and sun-warmed volume of her cleavage as he struggled to conclude his failing admonition. "I know what I'm doing wrong... I'm standing in your way. I'm suffocating you, and you should just... wipe me out of the way like an angry blesbok."
“You expect me to sit here and listen to your shit when you're high?” she snarled. "You're in a fucking spiral... a circle only goes in one direction. You don't even know what normalcy is any more!"
“Rachel... think back and pick out all the good times, please... just for my benefit. All those sober occasions when I was happy and shitting normality, sorry, normalcy out of every orifice...” She looked up again at the sky.
“That picnic in the rain... you threw the turkeydogs in the river and tried to tell me you were vegan... that time we made love on the roof of the Peninsula... and Vegas...”
William nodded as she related each circumstance.
“Baked... fan-baked... out of my fucking mind on peyote... and Vegas? Bordel... no files exist. Pour l'amour de Dieu, you have a doctor and he's costing Opal lots of money... talk to him instead of showing him your knickers."
She stared, then swung a fist, striking him with all the impulsive wrath that rose in answer to the suggestion. William closed his eyes, let it land and kick his head sideways in an expression of defeat he knew would satisfy her, his ascent from the couch and escape into the lounge timed to those aspects of her response that he knew better than she did. He secured the bedroom door behind himself but she was not long deterred; on finding herself debarred Rachel began a stream of personalized invective, twisting the handle and kicking at the intervening panel. A phone on the tansu behind him began to vibrate as though in sympathy and he reached for it with a foot, squinting at the unfamiliar number while he kept hold of the door, then pressing it to his ear.
"Ouais?" William received no reply though the line hung open, the hum of faintly oscillating static a product of the topography. He smiled to himself, recognizing the silence and addressing its palpable sentiment as Rachel's demonstration waxed almost satanic. "I do know this is completely fucked." he admitted. "But she's got me clocked, mahatma. I try to tell her it’s over but she starts screaming and fucking my earholes and taking her clothes off and I try to get away... I'm sweating and crying but I can't move, then I wake up and I've lost an hour and I feel so empty inside." An automated voice advised that the line had been temporarily assigned, and he waited with his back to the door, flicking his teeth with a fingernail until it returned.
"Get in the car." his brother's voice pronounced coldly. William reached forward and dragged the tansu against the partition, edging around it to lean out the window and gaze down at the German sedan idling on the street below. His gaze narrowed.
“You just flipped a fucking coin, didn’t you?" Another grainy silence ensued and he smiled to himself. "What were you going to do if it came up heads?" He received no reply. "Well... that beats the shit out of what you're doing now." The vehicle was placed in gear as its driver's patience ended but William whistled down at it, stowing the curtain and climbing out over the sill. He hung for a moment in the arms of the breeze before letting himself drop onto the balcony below, repeating the process five times until he gained a section of fire escape and whistled back up toward the apartment. One by one the pheasants coasted down to the street from the balcony on their short, fanned wings, clucking as they alighted.
The sedan's interior was as exclusively redolent of leather and high grade plastics as it had been on the day of its issue. William sat down in the passenger seat after settling the birds in the rear and glanced up through the window at the building from which he had absconded.
"Fifteen floors of vampyres and not one is that fucking hungry." he sighed.
"Darknet, no landlines, no mail to the address. Nai i'rani, nai i'ssi'tan." Edward decreed, his yellow gaze returning to the road like that of some effigy that had discharged its oracular obligations. William took a while to respond, sitting with an expression that darkened with the fitful percussive blows transmitted to his seat through the chassis beneath them.
"I'd have a look at that if I were you." he muttered.
Edward slid a hand into the depths of his jacket as he stood out of the driver's seat, surveilling the empty street with automatic deliberation before attending to the restive contents of the trunk.
With both hands William wrestled a tribe of purple plastic bags, crowding them into his lap on a damp bench outside a wholesale flower market. They were stuffed with stems of lily buds, their waxen white and spotted spinel pink enclosing russet pollen and he lifted his chin to avoid damaging their petals. After a quick glance around he opened his mouth and took the tallest bud between his teeth, biting it gently from the stem. At four in the morning even the flower traders were saturnine, smoking in grim little knots outside the vehicle bays, their aprons stained with sap and bucket water. The night was rank and moonless and began exuding misty rain, its greasy shine settling all around him. William sat while condensation collected on the market sign and dripped into the collar of his striped pullover. Someone walked quickly past him and then backtracked, dropping hands to their sides as he looked up.
“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.