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The light from the Television – what Time it is –

The light from the television flickers over tangled blankets in the otherwise dark room. It’s a large flat-sceen model hung on the wall over the blond wood crates at the foot of the futon. On the screen a man in a white top hat and tails is dancing before a gospel choir as a couple of men in orange jumpsuits wheel about him on skateboards. If you don’t come see me today, says the television, I can’t save you any money. Someone’s snoring lightly. At the foot of the futon a tumbled pile of empty shoe boxes, a couple that say Converse, a larger one that says John Fluevog. An orange carton of cigarettes ripped open at one end. Djarum, says the label. 76. The commercial ends with a fanfare and the light from the television changes. A man in a dark suit’s scooping cat food from one can into another in a minty pastel kitchen. He’s humming along with the soundtrack. A shot of a marmalade tabby pawing and mewling at the louvered kitchen doors. The snoring hitches and stops and a bare foot kicks out from under the blankets as Jo rolls over on her side. Wrapped in a clean white fluffy robe loosely belted falling from one shoulder. Oh the cat’s hungry, right, right, says the television. I’ll fix you dinner just as soon as I get me a smoke. Jo takes in a deep fluttering breath and the snoring starts again. At the head of the futon a low shelf painted white, a glass ashtray with three or four butts, a low thick-bottomed tumbler, a slick of something amber left inside. A half-dozen DVD cases most still saying Security Device Enclosed along the side and three books lying flat, the top one with a receipt tucked inside. A sword in a plain black scabbard, its guard a glittering net of wiry strands about the hilt, its pommel a great silvery clout. Someone moans.

The bathroom door is closed. Inside it’s dark but for three candles on the back of the toilet. Ysabel on the bathmat in black lace underwear curled on her side her hair a great black tangle spread across the grimy tiles her arms shivering clenched about herself. Gasping. A sob, and another. Her lips move, and she licks them, swallows, her cheek against the tiles she says her voice a breath, “Could I enchant, and that it lawful were,” and maybe she coughs, or laughs, and then she says, her voice worn thin, “her would I charm, softly, that none should hear – ”

Standing leaning against the sink her hand held up before her reflection shadowed and colorless. Her forefinger and middle finger together, extended, glistening in the candlelight. She presses her fingertips to the mirror and with a squeak draws them across the bridge of her reflection’s nose leaving a smeared and blurry wake obliterating the eyes. “Fuck the sager sort,” she says, shaking her head, her reflection turning away, falling as she sits on the bathmat, the smear left behind, snagging the candlelight. Ysabel leans over to twist a knob on the baseboard heater and then wrapping her arms about herself lies down again her back to it as a mosquito-whine climbs a couple of notches and something somewhere inside it begins gently to buzz. She closes her eyes, her mouth set in a straight flat line. From a hook on the closed door hangs a clean white fluffy robe, the belt of it dangling from one soft loop to draggle on the floor.

The light from the candles caught in that smear on the mirror flaring, popping. On the floor Ysabel doesn’t stir. Four sparks, five, left glimmering on the mirror, pulsing a little against the candles’ flicker, fading. Falling away from the mirror three specks of glittering gold dust, four, drifting down and down to settle there on the edge of the sink. One of them and another landing in droplets of water still standing by a faucet, where they blacken and are gone.

“I don’t know,” says Jo in her white robe sitting on the futon, eating garish orange cereal from a yellow oblong plastic bowl. On the large screen on the wall behind her a cartoon girl in chaps and cowboy boots and a long white scarf soundlessly fires her outsized handguns at a giant robot.

“Is it ten o’clock?” says Ysabel. In her black underwear curled into one of the wrought-iron chairs, heels on the cushion and arms about her shins. On the glass-topped café table an empty pink oblong plastic bowl and an open cereal box that says OJ’s. “Half past ten?” Her cheek on her knees.

“I have no idea,” says Jo. Her voice rough and slow. “Maybe. We were out late.”

“Is it almost eleven?”

“Goddammit, Ysabel,” says Jo, leaning over, grabbing a glassy black phone from the shelf at the head of the futon. She thumbs the only button on its face. “Quarter of ten,” she says. “Okay? Happy?” Tossing the phone back onto the shelf.

“He said you could go back on Monday,” says Ysabel, turning her head, her chin on her knees now. Looking out the window. “And we didn’t go back on Monday.” Jo’s scooping up more cereal. “Or Tuesday, or Wednesday, or Thursday – ”

“There’s a point?” says Jo, thumbing some milk from her chin.

“You said you wanted to learn from him. You wanted to learn how to use the sword.”

“Are you hungry?” says Jo. “Aren’t you cold?” Ysabel’s resting her cheek on her knees again. “I was thinking,” says Jo, “I don’t know. Maybe it’d be smart if we both used a little time to cool off. Him and me.”

“Does he know that?” says Ysabel.

“Jesus, would you put on a fucking shirt?”

Ysabel doesn’t move, and Jo looks away, looks down, sets her bowl on the shelf. On the television behind her the girl in the chaps and cowboy boots is silhouetted by an enormous orange explosion. “As you wish,” says Ysabel then, and she unfolds herself stretching her arms and legs and still sitting bends to grab a plain white T-shirt from the floor, tugging it out from under the black spear-haft that lies under the glass-topped table. Jo’s leaning across the futon, digging through the clothing stuffed in the blond wood crates, sitting back with an armload of stuff, all black. Scooting off the futon holding the robe closed as she climbs to her feet. Ysabel watching as Jo walks past, into the little hallway kitchen, clothing bundled under one arm. “You never used to get dressed in the bathroom,” says Ysabel.

“You never used to sleep in the bathroom,” says Jo, closing the door.

Table of Contents

The Greatest Auto Dealer Commercial of All Time,” written by Nerve, copyright holder unknown. The Long Goodbye, written by Leigh Brackett, copyright holder unknown. Loue me or not, loue her I must or dye,” written by Thomas Campion, within the public domain. Bakuretsu Tenshi, ©2003 GONZO.

“Is it the money?” – What they’re getting – little more than a Closet – Why he’s doing it –

“Is it the money?” says Ysabel.

“What?” says Jo. “No. Pick out anything you want. Whatever. I don’t care.” Clacking dresses from one side of a rack to the other without really looking at them. Her coat of soft and butter-colored leather beaded still with raindrops.

“No,” says Ysabel, “I mean, was the money why,” turning a pair of boots over in her hands, worn brown leather, sharp toes, high heels. “I could have given you whatever you wanted, you know? Whenever. Whenever you wanted it.” She’s wearing a white trench coat unbuttoned over a tight T-shirt dress printed with a blond Batgirl in purple and grey. “Before I gave it all away.” She puts the boots back on the shelf above the rack.

“It,” says Jo. She stops flipping through dresses. “What about whatever we needed? Huh? What about what we needed? All those times I’m giving you shit for buying peach ice teas we couldn’t afford, you ever think of saying oh, hey, wait a minute, here’s twenty bucks I got in my pocket? It.” She pulls something off the rack, a sundress, blue and yellow checks. “What do you think, huh?” Holding it up in front of herself. “Too summery. Yeah.” She slaps it back on the rack. “You did it the one time. You gave Timmo the money for the fake ID. You told him to spend it all in one place. Why’d you tell him that?”

“Jo,” says Ysabel.

“How long did that money last in his pocket? How long before he reaches for it and it’s gone?

“Jo,” says Ysabel, “that card is the same thing.”

“The hell it is,” says Jo. “It’s still right here, in my pocket. Hasn’t turned to dust or ashes or leaves or whatever the hell.”

“What about the – ”

“How long was it in his pocket? How long would it last in mine?” Jo heads to the next rack down, running her hand clack-clack along the hangers.

“It’s just drawings on paper,” says Ysabel. “Easy to make.”

“Easy come, easy go. How long? Timmo didn’t come out yelling after us about ripping him off so it’s at least, what, half an hour? Long enough to buy breakfast, maybe, instead of bitching about cold pizza? Only our waiter goes to settle up and he’s short because one of his twenties ain’t there anymore, gone to moonbeams or cobwebs or whatever the fuck.”

“That card is a promise to pay,” says Ysabel, following after down the line of racks. “But you aren’t going to pay, are you.”

“I hope to hell not,” says Jo.

“So who is? How is that any different?”

“Because it’s all, I don’t know. Between banks. Numbers in a computer. And anyway banks don’t beat the shit out of whoever’s standing next to them when they suddenly figure out their wallet’s lost weight.”

“Is that how it works?”

“I don’t know. You tell me.” Jo holds up a shirtwaist dress in black and grey with pink and white dots here and there. “What do you think. Demure rockabilly?” She shoves the dress back with a rustle. “You wanted to come here. Find whatever it is you want, I don’t care. I’ll go look at some T-shirts maybe.” She turns, heads off down the rack toward the other big room.

“You should talk to him, Jo,” Ysabel calls after her. Jo stops, turns her hand on her hip, that buttery coat falling open over her satiny black slip, her skinny black jeans. “He told you it was because you’re a knight,” says Ysabel.

“It’s my due,” says Jo.

“The Chariot doesn’t have a card like that,” says Ysabel.

“What,” says Jo, walking back down the racks toward her, “he gets by on his charm? I think you’re missing the point. If this card works and so far it has, then we don’t have to. Okay? No more calling people at random to ask what they think about this ballot measure. Or the last time they went to the fucking Pet Depot. Or how happy they are with their checking account. Okay?”

“So it’ll keep us from getting evicted?” says Ysabel.

“He’s working on that too,” says Jo.

“You’ve got to talk to him,” says Ysabel. “What can he possibly do that I couldn’t?”

“Well,” says Jo, “right off the bat I bet he ain’t gonna try to sleep with the night manager.”

Ysabel looks away at that, then starts walking, down the racks, past Jo. “You have to know what you’re getting us into,” she says, heading into the other big room. “Where are you going?” says Jo, trailing after. Past racks of old silk-screened T-shirts and pants, coats and jackets, a display of white knee socks printed up the sides with slogans that say Whisky and Bacon and Kosher and Brooklyn. Past the cash registers, day-glo colored burlesque posters hanging above on the high red walls. “Ysabel?” Past the last rack of clothes, a giant stuffed tiger lounging on the top shelf, pushing through glass doors out into a colorless day soft with rain. Ysabel stops a moment and pulls a crumpled white fedora from under her arm, shakes it out, looks at it in her hands before settling it on her head. Jo grabs her arm. “What the fuck, Ysabel?”

“We’re going to go see the Duke,” says Ysabel. She points down the street, past signs that say Bread and Ink and Bagdad and Naked City and Nick’s Famous Coney Island. “Three blocks,” she says, and she turns and starts walking.

“Ysabel!” calls Jo after her. “Jesus. It’s raining!”

“It’s Portland!” Ysabel calls back. “It’s always raining!” Waiting for a car to turn past her, then stepping out across the side street. “Except in the summer,” she says to herself. “When it goes to the weird desert place.” Jo trotting after her, bare-headed, hands jammed in the pockets of her coat.

Stepping through the propped-open double doors into the black-and-white tiled foyer Jo’s brushing rainwater from her short dark hair. “You cheated,” she says.

Ysabel one white boot already up on the first wide white-painted step doesn’t turn, but stops, one hand on the crown of her white fedora, and says, “That’s a serious accusation.”

“It was all about this. You didn’t want to go shopping at all.”

“This,” says Ysabel, taking off her hat, glancing back over her shoulder. “Of course I wanted to go shopping.”

“And you just happened to take us somewhere a couple blocks away from the Duke’s place.” Jo’s looking about the foyer, the wide staircase, the sign beneath them that says India Oven, the bouquet of tie-dyed T-shirts hanging in the doorway opposite. “This is the Duke’s place?” A man’s ducking under the T-shirts. “Ladies,” he’s saying, “excuse me.” His hair richly red, flopping from a high widow’s peak. “You can’t, ah, you can’t go up there.” His vest a dull brick, his shirt a dingy gold, his knitted tie is brown.

“How was I to know,” Ysabel’s saying, turning now, taking her foot off the step, “you were going to pick a fight about him?” The man with the brown tie’s brought up short, eyes widening, jaw slackening. “Majesty!” he says, and then, quickly, “Highness, no, I – ”

“Highness, good,” says Ysabel, as Jo starts to say “I wasn’t picking a.” Ysabel walks past her, up to the man with the brown tie. “The last person,” she’s saying, “to mistake me for a queen had to give up her sword. Etiquette is so important.”

“Highness,” says the man with the brown tie, and he swallows, “he’s engaged. He’s not to be disturbed.”

“But surely,” says Ysabel, smiling, walking past him, behind him, around him, “he’d not say no to his Princess, nor his paramour.”

“His what?” says Jo.

“Will you say no,” says Ysabel, her hand on his shoulder, “to your Princess?”

And he bites his lip and doesn’t nod, but doesn’t shake his head, either.

“We’ll show ourselves up,” says Ysabel.

The stairs double back and end in a white landing on the second floor that opens through wide double doors on an empty echoing ballroom. A row of folding tables lined with glass pipes in delicately jeweled colors under buzzing fluorescent lights. Jo stands in the doorway looking back and forth between the ballroom and the landing. “Well?” she says.

Ysabel standing by a humming bright Coke machine points to an unmarked white door on the other side of it.

“This?” says Jo. “Are there more stairs, or something? Is this his place? There’s no bell. Do we knock?”

Ysabel shrugs. “Why not open the door and see,” she says, and Jo puts her hand on the faceted glass knob and turns it and opens the door.

The room beyond is little more than a closet and to one side of the door there’s a mop bucket with mop propped inside. In the corner past a rack of cubbies stuffed with spray bottles and cartons of light bulbs and wrapped bundles of paper towels under looped hanks of orange extension cord there’s the Duke in an unbelted dressing gown crowded with paisleys of purple and maroon and gold and brown looking down hair hanging in his eyes at the woman kneeling before him his hands on her head fingers in her shining blond hair undone and splayed down her bare back and down a burning heart in a glistering starburst of red and yellow rays criss-crossed by the black strap of her satiny thong and he’s looking up eyes opening over an opened mouth twisting a slash of a grimace eyes narrowing “Get out!” he roars. “Close the damn door!” The woman sitting back on her heels the bottoms of her bare feet smudged with dirt one hand up before her mouth as Jo slams the door shut. She looks over at Ysabel who’s biting a knuckle and trying not to smile.

“The fuck was that?” says Jo.

A rustle a thump a clatter and footsteps approaching the door from the other side. “You did not just open my door!” says the Duke. “You did not just open my door without knocking or announcing yourself or I will have the Stirrup’s guts for my garters I assure you.”

“I, ah,” says Jo, looking from the door to Ysabel and back again, and Ysabel’s examining the Coke machine now, and Jo scowls. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I didn’t know. We’ll just, we’ll go, okay? I’m sorry.”

“No, no, no,” says the Duke, and there’s a grinding sliding sound and a sharp clap. “Don’t go, don’t go. You’re fine. Stand over there.”

“What?” says Jo. “Stand where?”

“Not you!” calls the Duke. “Not you. You’re fine. There’s a password. Which I’m gonna impose on the Princess, because she knows it, and she fucking knows she knows it. Okay?” Something on the other side of the door falls with a fluttering crash. “You ready? Highness?”

Ysabel steps back from the Coke machine, her eyes on the doorknob. “Yes,” she says. Jo’s glaring.

“Duncan will be one man,” says the Duke.

“And,” says Ysabel, “Farquahr will be two.”

“Okay,” says the Duke. “Okay.”

“Go on,” says Ysabel.

“Fuck you,” says Jo. “You do it.”

“Okay,” says Ysabel, and she puts her hand on the faceted glass knob and turns it and opens the door and steps through into a dark hallway that opens into a room filled with soft light from tall narrow windows hung with white cloth shades pulled low. The Duke in the middle of the otherwise empty room, his dressing gown belted, his feet bare. “Highness,” he says. “What a surprise. So good of you to come. Don’t look out there.”

Jo reaching for one of the long white shades stops her hand in the air and looks back at him. “It’s still a bit raw,” he says, and he shrugs, his face kiltered with an apologetic smile. “Don’t know what you’d see out there. Highness!” His smile tightens. “How wonderful you’re here. You should have had someone call.”

“It was something of a whim,” says Ysabel.

“She said she wanted to go shopping,” says Jo.

“You had questions about the card,” says Ysabel, and then to the Duke, “What do you think about her coat?”

“It’s nice,” he says, “I like the outfit, it’s – ”

“I think it’s a bit ostentatious,” says Ysabel.

“I did not have questions about the fucking card,” says Jo.

“You wanted to thank him for it, then,” says Ysabel.

“Ysabel you were the one who stalked out of the store all of a sudden and I had to chase you down the street because, because – ”

“Because?” says Ysabel, but Jo doesn’t respond, she’s staring over past Ysabel at the doorway and the Duke’s looking down, rubbing his forehead. Ysabel turns to see the woman in the thong leaning in the doorway, hugging herself, one hand up pushing her slippery blond hair out of her face. “Leo,” she says.

“What a great idea!” cries the Duke. “I’ll find a shirt, you find, some clothes, and we’ll all go together to get some brunch. Okay? My treat.”

The Duke drains the juice from his wineglass, daubs his lips with his thumb, sets the glass on the table, looking across the table at Jo the whole time. She’s looking down at her plate, tearing a bite from a thick slice of bacon specked with crumbs of black pepper. He shakes his head, forks up a bit of omelette. “You really don’t get it,” he says.

“She can be quite oblivious sometimes,” says Ysabel, sipping coffee, sitting next to Jo on the bench before the rain-dappled window.

“What,” says Jo. “It’s good bacon.” She finishes it off, scoops up some scrambled egg. “Anyway I’m not vegetarian.”

“He doesn’t like it,” says the blond woman, swirling a bit of waffle around in a pool of deep purple syrup. “When you eat meat,” she says, popping it into her mouth.

“So?” says Jo.

“Actually,” says the Duke, “it depends.” He turns in his chair, lifts his empty glass, wobbling it at the woman over behind the counter loading up plates of bagels and scones and bialys. “How about you?” he asks Ysabel.

“You’re asking,” she says flatly.

“Why not?”

“What?” says Jo, frowning.

“What what,” says Ysabel. Untouched on the plate before her a couple of bean cakes under poached eggs, a tidy pile of mango salsa to the side. “Follow her needs must I,” she says, almost to herself.

The Duke sits back. “No shit,” he says. Ysabel doesn’t take up her fork, doesn’t sip more coffee. On the dull red wall above them hang calligraphic cartoons, a lowercase d playing itself like a drum, an S playing itself like a bass fiddle. Jo’s looking back and forth between them, and across from her the blond woman in the grey chauffeur’s uniform jacket buttoned up to her throat is finishing off her waffle. “Doesn’t matter,” says the Duke. “You know why I’m doing this?”

“Because you would be King,” says Ysabel.

“I will be King, Princess. And you my Queen.” He leans forward, elbows on the table. “Did you know the Soames had gone?” Ysabel looks up at that, eyes wide, face paling. “You didn’t,” says the Duke.

“What’s her name, Nell?” says Jo. “Where did she,” and then she stops and says, “Oh.”

The woman from behind the counter sets a fresh glass of juice by the Duke. “Anything else?” she says.

“Nearly a week now,” says the Duke, shaking his head. “Offices burnt to the ground, and her and one of her lieutenants inside. Maybe more, who can keep track these days. They went and picked a new one already the other night.” He lifts his glass in a little salute. “Long may he chair.”

“My mother,” says Ysabel, and Jo lifts a hand, holds it hesitating over the fist Ysabel’s made, “would never have – ”

“Which makes it worse,” says the Duke. “Much the worse, if someone else is meting out such fates, and she won’t stop them. Or can’t.”

Ysabel opens her fist, then picks up her fork, and Jo lowers her hand. Ysabel cuts a bite of bean cake and egg, yellow yolk seeping out over her plate. “And so it’s all down to Your Grace,” she says.

“You see anyone else?” says the Duke. “Tell me something, Highness. Why did you go to see the Soames last month?”

“She invited me,” says Ysabel.

The Duke snorts. “And there’s me, always asking the wrong question.” He reaches down into the pocket of the tweed jacket draped over the back of his chair and there’s a slippery rustling sound and he drops a big clear plastic bag in the middle of the table, the mouth of it sealed with a purple zip-lock. Inside in turn maybe a dozen little plastic baggies each twisted tightly about a thimbleful of golden dust, and each even in this weak light glitters through the cloudy layers of plastic. Gold sparks set to dancing in the glasses. “You know what that is, Highness? That’s Southeast there before you, or what of it that’s left. My fabled treasuries and storehouses gape before you.” He lays a hand on the bag. “Not enough to fill your breakfast plate.”

“You are famously profligate,” says Ysabel.

“Is that what they’re calling it,” says the Duke. “Well even a grasshopper might one day learn to husband grain against the coming winter, Highness, but when winter comes every blasted month – ” He lifts his hand away. “Your mother’s late. Again. And yet.” He picks up the bag, hefts it in his hand a moment. “Meet their needs must I.” He tucks it back into the pocket of his jacket. “Come along with me.”

“What?” says Ysabel.

“As I am about my business today. The both of you. Come see what I see as I choose the which of my people might divvy up these last few moths from my wallet.” He looks over his shoulder, catching the attention of an older man weaving between tables with a coffee pot, and he makes a scribbling motion in the air. “Well?” He lays his hand on the hand of the blond woman beside him. “You mind going to get the car, hon? While I settle up?”

Table of Contents

Mademoiselle Juliette – “I am the house” – what the Starling does – Tits & Ass & Oh –

Mademoiselle Juliette n’a pas vraiment la tête, that voice slinking out over the driving beat, choisir entre Montague, Capulet, two women on the stage that fills one end of the dark red room, the same high white wigs piled atop their heads, the same blued eyes under elaborately painted brows, the same striking noses, very similar breasts bared over embroidered corsets, long wide-hipped skirts parted before like curtains over the same frothy confusion of lacey underwear and garters and stockings, all dusty pinks and ivories and pale blues and paler golds. Stepping daintily back and forth to that enormous beat hands out to either side just so, one of them holding a fan, the other a handkerchief. Cette commedia del’arte n’est pas assez déjantée sings that slinking voice, and they dip and sashay in unison stepping free of their skirts leaving them upright and empty behind, long legs bare hips turning and ducking and stopping then one of them tilting her head back the other looking over her shoulder. “Jackie!” she yells over the beat. “Jackie the goddamn lights!” And then a smile blooming her voice climbing, cooing, “Leo!”

“Ettie, darling,” calls the Duke, there by the bar. “Could we?” Waggling a finger in the air at the music.

“Jackie!” she bellows. “Cut it!” The other dancer’s stepped down from the stage, she’s wriggling her way into a long sheer robe, careful of her wig. The music stops mid-Juliette. A woman pops up from behind the bar, spiky red hair and a faceful of freckles, a sleeveless black T-shirt and skinny arms festooned with tattoos. “You want it again from the top?” and then her scowl unfolding eyes widening her voice a shriek, “Jessie!” Planting her hands on the bar she hops it in a single practiced bound. “Goddamn girl!” Dodging tables past the Duke and Jo and Ysabel to swallow the blond woman in the grey chauffeur’s uniform jacket with a spinning, staggering hug.

“Leo, chér,” says the first dancer, one hand on the column of chain at the corner of the stage, turning and stooping to lower a stockinged leg. Arms out for balance she totters toward them on thick-soled high-heeled shoes. The other dancer sitting unstraps her shoes, sets them on the table before her, white with whorls of gold. On the stage behind them the skirts still standing empty, flared shells of starched linen and ribbon and lace.

“Ettie,” says the Duke again. “Chrissie. A delight to find you here.”

“They’ve given us a night, mon chér,” says Ettie, leaning to kiss his cheek as he takes her into a one-armed hug. “Burlesque in the round.” Her voice jerks from coo to growl. “If we can ever get the cues straight.” In the reddened gloom by the pool table Jackie’s laughing at something Jessie’s said.

“If I might present,” says the Duke, “Jo Maguire.” Leaning on his cane one arm still about Ettie’s shoulder. “And of course the Princess.”

“Enchanté,” says Ettie, offering her hand. Chrissie in her robe coming up on stockinged feet. Ysabel with a smile tucked in the corner of her mouth takes Ettie’s hand and Ettie with a half-twist turns it lifts it to a lipsticked kiss on her knuckles. “It’s so sophisticated,” says Chrissie, her hands on Ettie’s hips. “How you’ve revived the pomp of a royal court the way you have.” Ettie straightening says, “The etiquette.” Chrissie’s chin settles on Ettie’s shoulder. Their wigs rustling brush together.

“Indeed,” says Ysabel rubbing her knuckles with a thumb.

“You must come see our show,” says Ettie, and “Oh, you must,” says Chrissie. “We’re premièring a piece from our new collaboration.”

“But minus our collaborators,” says Ettie.

“The Dispute d’enfants après jeux,” says Chrissie.

“They wouldn’t fit,” says Ettie. “Orchestras, you know.”

“What are you up to now,” says the Duke.

“Didn’t we tell you, chéri?” Ettie steps out from under his arm, and Chrissie as she says “We call it Pictures at an Ecdysis” steps one arm about the Duke’s waist now, the other still about Ettie’s, Ettie who’s saying “We wanted to call it Strippers at an Exhibition,” her arm settling on Chrissie’s shoulders. “Mæstro Vajda’s a bit squeamish. But so are the subscribers. He has his point. Just think of it – the Sœurs Limoges – the Oregon Symphony Orchestra – the Schnitz!” And the Duke looking from one to the other his smile growing. He says, “But you need help.”

Chrissie squeezes against him. “Are we so obvious, mon grand?”

“‘Help’ is such a vulgar word for it,” says Ettie.

“Tell you what,” says the Duke, lifting Chrissie’s hand from his hip taking it in his own. “Have your people call my people.” Scooping Ettie’s free hand up along with it. “While they’re distracted, we’ll sneak off for dinner somewhere.” Kissing their knuckles each in turn. “Just the three of us. But later!” Taking a heavy step back from them both. “Is Starling back there?”

They look at each other, Ettie and Chrissie, and then Chrissie says, “Yes.”

“She is,” says Ettie.

“In the which case,” says the Duke, taking Ysabel’s hand, “the Princess and I should excuse ourselves.”

“Whoa,” says Jo, pushing past Jackie and her tattooed arms, Jessie in her grey jacket, planting herself there between the Duke and Ysabel, and Ettie and Chrissie arm-in-arm. “Easy, killer,” says the Duke. “No hanky-panky. I promise.”

“Where she goes I go,” says Jo.

“And here you are!” says the Duke. “And we’re gonna walk through that door over there. Back in five minutes. Not even.” He shrugs. “What could I possibly manage to do in just five minutes? Shut up, ladies.” Ettie and Chrissie snort precise little giggles.

“Jo,” says Ysabel.

“If you won’t trust me,” says the Duke, “trust your boon.”

“Jo,” says Ysabel again. “This is just part of his little show. Let him have his fun.”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t have put it that way,” says the Duke, “but okay. And you have your fun. While we’re back there, bar’s open. Whatever you want. It’s before noon but it’s not like you’re driving anywhere anytime soon. Everybody!” Taking in the sweep of glimmering glass on the wall with a sweep of his cane. “Drinks on the house!”

“Really,” says Jackie, tattooed arms akimbo.

“I am the house, baby,” says the Duke. “And the house is feeling famously profligate today. Princess?”

Lurching he leads Ysabel toward the nondescript door by the stage as Jackie hops back over the bar. Jessie settles herself on a stool. Chrissie murmurs to Ettie, “What do you think? Four digits?”

“Five,” says Ettie.

“You always did like one-stop shopping,” says Chrissie, letting go of Ettie, pulling her robe more tightly about her, walking over to sit on a stool next to Jessie. Jackie’s pouring from three bottles at once into a silvery cocktail flask.

“It’s a little Marie Antionette,” says Jo. “Don’t you think?”

“What?” says Ettie in her stockings and garters and her thick-soled shoes and her embroidered corset. She reaches up to loosen the wig, lifting it from her head. Yellow hair severely straight slithers down to her shoulders.

“Wouldn’t you want something more medieval? The song.” Jo takes her hands from her pockets, folds her arms in her butter-colored jacket. “Montagues. Capulets.”

“You’ve obviously never tried stripping in a kirtle,” says Ettie, setting her wig on a table.

Past the nondescript door a short and narrow hall, dark, one end another door half-opened on white light and papers stacked high atop an old grey metal cabinet. At the other end a dim room, small, walls painted black, a sliver of mirror, warm pools of light. The Duke stops there between leans on his cane close to Ysabel as her eyes flick from his to his lips and back again, but he’s looking down the short length of that hall to the dim room. “Just,” he says, “Starling’s – well. He’s a little odd. Don’t, ah – ”

“Don’t be rude?” says Ysabel.

“Okay, sure,” says the Duke. “Don’t be rude. Wait.” He’s looking at her now, and her eyes flick again, his eyes, his mouth, the door they just stepped through, his eyes. “We were both oblique at brunch,” he says, “so let’s run through it again. You asked.”

“Yes,” says Ysabel.

“And she said no.”

“She said no,” says Ysabel.

“See,” says the Duke, looking down at the tip of his cane, “what I don’t get is why you’d ask. I mean, you must’ve known – ”

“Why’d you sleep with her?”

He looks up again. “She said that.”

“Did she lie?”

“Tell me something else,” says the Duke. “When you ate the tongue. What did you see? Oh come on.” Ysabel’s drawn back against the wall, looking down, away, her white hat in her hands. “I let you have his tongue. I let you have his tongue because I knew you couldn’t resist eating it. I knew when you ate it you’d see what’s to come. I wanted you to see that.” He’s even closer now. “What we all know will be. Tell me!” She’s looking at him now leaning over her. “You saw me as King, didn’t you. The banners of hawk and hive together over the city. A new day dawning.”

“I saw,” says Ysabel. Not looking up. “I saw myself as Queen. I saw Jo, at my side.”

“Yeah, well,” says the Duke, stepping back. “I was obviously out that day when you looked in. Taking care of business!” He taps his cane against the floor. “Always taking care of something.”

The dressing room, small, dim, painted black so many times the regular lines of the cinderblock walls are soft and blurry. Under one of the mirrors surrounded by stickers and photos a short red velvet chaise, on the chaise a figure in sweatpants and a large black hooded sweatshirt, the hood pulled up, looking down.

“Starling,” says the Duke.

The figure doesn’t move, the head doesn’t lift, the hood doesn’t fall, the hands don’t shift from the lap. “Your Grace.” The voice is rich but worn and ragged.

“You never miss a Friday.”

“Or a Monday. Or a Thursday.” One of those hands now dips a moment into the shadows under that hood, then comes back down between the knees. A big hand, the back of it snarled with thick veins, the nails short and flat, painted red, the enamel chipped and flaking. “I am so sorry, Your Grace. I am not myself today.”

“No need to apologize,” says the Duke, squatting. “No, Your Grace, please,” she murmurs, but he’s shaking his head, putting a hand in the pocket of his tweed jacket. “I have something for you.” Pressing into those hands a little baggie twisted round a thimbleful of gold dust. “Better sometimes than never,” he says.

“Does he always bring it to you himself?” says Ysabel in the doorway.

“Highness!” cries Starling, hitching up from the chaise, dropping to one knee by the Duke slowly straightening, standing. “I was so wrapped up in pity for myself I did not see you there.”

“The Princess has kindly agreed to come about with me on my rounds,” says the Duke.

“His Grace can be quite persuasive,” says Ysabel.

“His Grace can be quite cruel, in his kindness,” says Starling. Turning, lifting herself to sit on the chaise again before the mirror. “We’re opening soon,” she says. “I must prepare myself. I thought it best to go on early today. When it wasn’t so busy.”

“Show us,” says the Duke.

Ysabel in her white coat in the doorway, the Duke leaning against the dulled black wall, the stern, rough-hewn hawk at the head of his cane in his hands. Her hood turns away from them both, looking to the litter of makeup vials and jars on the little stack of shelves bolted in the corner by the mirror. “Quite cruel, Your Grace,” she says.

“Show her,” says the Duke. “Show her what you do with her mother’s gift.”

Starling picks up a jar filled almost to its wide-mouthed brim with a viscous, milky fluid, touched with just a hint of gold. “I cannot but as you ask,” she says, handing the jar to the Duke. “In answer to your question, Highness,” she says, setting the little baggie on a shelf, untwisting it open, “no. He does not. Not every time.” Dipping finger and thumb to pinch up some dust. “Usually, his man Sidney came to me. The Dagger.” Holding up that pinch, taking up a tube of lotion with her free hand, deftly opening the tube and squirting a dollop in the palm of the hand with the pinch. “Sometimes as often as once a week, or even every few days. He could be quite – boisterous. Enthusiastic. He often told me how beautiful he found me.” Letting the dust drift from fingertip to lotion shining white in her palm. “He would not have liked to see me as I am today.”

“He was an oaf,” says the Duke. Both hands on the hawk again. He’s tucked that jar away somewhere. “I should’ve listened to you.”

“I never said a word against him,” says Starling. The fingers of that hand lit up a little, calluses and creases picked out in sharper shadows now.

“Well,” says the Duke. “Still. I should’ve listened.”

Those hands pressed together now rubbing the lotion front to back, criss-crossing, the sleeves of her sweatshirt sliding away as she rubs lotion along her wrists, her forearms, her hands again, and Starling says, “But His Grace does come from time to time.” Her hands smoother now, more slender, longer perhaps, her nails definitely longer, and a glossy, flawless red. “I am honored when he does.” She lifts her hands to her face there under the hood and holds them still a moment.

“An artist of your talent honors us all,” says the Duke.

“But I do wish you had warned me,” says Starling, pushing the hood back, sweeping out a wave of black hair glossy in artful tangles. Looking green eyes up into the mirror at Ysabel looking back at a reflection of herself, a little older, the nose a little wider, the chin more prominent. The red smile hesitant. “Please,” says Starling. “Forgive me. It is – something of an homage, intended with the utmost respect – ”

“Why,” says Ysabel, there in the doorway, “why must I forgive such flattery?”

“Red Ruth?” says Jo. On the bar before her a shot glass half-full of something clear and colorless. Jackie shrugs her tattooed shoulders. “It’s in England somewhere,” she says. “Saw it on a map once. Said to myself, that’s a bad-ass stripper name.” She holds up a hand. On the stage a man in jeans and a morning-coat holds an umbrella strung with little white lights. He’s singing over a roughly strummed guitar Narcisissma, Narcisissma as Ettie and Chrissie in shimmering haltered gowns and opera gloves dance a foxtrot about him. Narcisissma is the pride of Pomona, he sings, and Jackie slides a couple of dimmer switches on the console sitting on the bar, and lights dim and shift onstage from yellow and red to blue as the white lights strung about his umbrella flare. Pomona, Pomona says she looks like me, but she will look like you when I’m set free. “I used to do this pirate thing,” says Jackie, turning back from the console. “Back when it was big.”

“Sisters, huh,” says Jo, watching them twirl into a dip onstage.

“The twin thing,” says Jackie.

“It’s a license to print fucking money,” says Jessie. She shoves a glass rattling with a few loose ice cubes at Jackie. “Pour me another one, babe.”

“Diet Dr. Pepper on the house,” says Jo.

“Maybe you don’t have to drive, but I do,” says Jessie, smoothing the front of her grey chauffeur’s jacket. She takes the glass of soda from Jackie. Jo says, “So what was your name?” and Jessie sets the glass down unsipped and squeezes her eyes shut and says “Oh God it was so fucking emo.”

“Oh please,” says Jackie.

She’s got no braids in the inkwell, no money on the prize, the man’s singing as Ettie or Chrissie slips a glove from Chrissie’s or Ettie’s arm. Ain’t got no boyfriend behind her that she can’t hypnotize.

“Rain,” says Jessie, opening her eyes.

“Rain?” says Jo.

“I moved up here from San Diego, okay? I had this idea I’d spend these long lazy afternoons in a hot tub in a cabin in the woods with candles and wine and a good book and it’d be raining all the time on a tin roof or something. So I was Rain, okay?” Swaying back and forth nose to nose Ettie and Chrissie gloveless undo the straps to each other’s gowns. Narcisissma is the pride of Biloxi, sings the man in the morning-coat. Biloxi, Biloxi says she’s not your kind, but Narcisissma gives me peace of mind. “So fucking romantic,” says Jessie.

“If there’s somebody in the hot tub with you,” says Jackie.

“Speak for yourself. Let me tell you something.” Jessie leans over, puts her hand on Jo’s. “It’s the music, okay? Picking your songs. Everything else, it’s just tits and ass and your oh face. You gotta get the music right.” Ettie and Chrissie hold their last pose forehead to forehead arms about each other’s necks and then one of them turns away suddenly saying “Thank you, Jeff. Can we run that again? To get the lights right?” as the other works her gown back up in place. “And if you really want to tell them what it’s all about,” says Jessie, “there’s only one song to dance to.”

“What’s that,” says Jo, her hand still under Jessie’s.

“Eleanor Rigby,” says Jessie.

Table of Contents

Mademoiselle Juliette,” written by Jérémy Chatelain and Jean Fauque, ©2007 Sony ATV Publishing – Sir Sid / Sir Sid. Narcisissma written by Don McLean, copyright holder unknown.

“What I think is maybe” – Modern and more Equitable – the Strong Hand – on the Strand – Unreservedly –

“What I think is maybe this time Jo comes with me,” says the Duke, his arm hooked over the headrest, looking over at Jo and Ysabel in the cramped back seat. “If you’re worried about the Princess, killer,” he says, “don’t. Everybody knows my car. Just about the safest place in the city – especially in my demesne? Back seat of this very automobile.” He gets out of the car, levers his seat-back forward, leans in to offer Jo a hand. Ysabel scoots over as Jo climbs out and follows her, hauling herself out of the car. “Thought I’d sit up front, with your driver,” she says to the Duke’s arched eyebrow. “More pleasant place to spend the five minutes or so you’ll be inside.”

“You guys were gone at least twenty,” says Jo, looking at the brick block across the street. Over the front door square in the middle of the façade a small model of a three-masted sailing ship, a little red metal banner frozen in a snap of wind. Letters carved into the lintel below say Vitula Arms.

“An exaggeration,” says the Duke. “Shall we?”

As she slides into the front seat Ysabel says to Jo, “Don’t forget.” She pulls the door shut against the gently seeping rain. Watches Jo jog and the Duke hop limpingly across the street and along the sidewalk to the building’s front door. The Duke reaches past Jo to open it for her. “How long have you known him?” says Ysabel.

The door closes, Jo and the Duke inside. The woman behind the wheel in her grey chauffeur’s cap and her grey chauffeur’s jacket looks over at Ysabel sitting beside her. “About a year almost?” she says. “More than that. First time I talked to him was around Christmas last year, but I’d see him at the club before that.”

“Is it a little stuffy in here?” Ysabel works one shoulder then another free of her white trench coat and wriggles it off. “The heater’s been working overtime.” The blond Batgirl bunched up in the wrinkles that crease her tight T-shirt dress. “Mind if I crack a window?” The woman behind the wheel shrugs, and Ysabel cranks the window down a bit. “That’s better, don’t you think?”

“You’re going to marry him, aren’t you.”

“I’m the Bride. I have to marry someone.”

Wavering rain glazes down the windshield before them. “I’m not just his mistress,” says the woman behind the wheel.

Ysabel props her elbow on the seat-back, rests her head in her hand. “I’m not the one you should be telling,” she says.

“He knows,” says the woman behind the wheel, looking Ysabel in the eye from beneath the brim of her chauffeur’s cap.

Ysabel says, “Oh, this will be fun.” Reaching along the seat toward that cap. The woman behind the wheel pulls back a little, away. “I think,” says Ysabel, “you missed a move or two in the game.”

“What game?”

“Tell me,” says Ysabel. “Do you think I’m beautiful?” The woman behind the wheel catches her breath. “Ah,” says Ysabel. “Did he tell you what that means?”

The woman behind the wheel frowns, and starts to shake her head. “I,” she says, “don’t know what you,” and Ysabel shushes her, shifts closer along the seat to her, says, “It’s all right.” Takes off the cap. The woman doesn’t pull away this time. “You already answered,” says Ysabel, leaning in to kiss her mouth.

Jo leans back, opens her eyes. Hands on the Duke’s hips. “I wasn’t expecting that.”

“Really?” says the Duke, hands on her shoulders. He leans close, forehead brushing hers. “I’ve been wanting to do that all week.” They kiss again there in the foyer, the door closed behind them. The Duke pulls back suddenly. “You didn’t call,” he says.

“I don’t, I don’t have your number,” says Jo.

“You didn’t ask.”

“I didn’t know you had a number to ask for,” says Jo. “Anyway you’re a Duke. What are you waiting around for the girl to call?”

“Is this not a modern and more equitable age? Are we not now either of us capable of waiting for a phone call?”

Jo smiles. “You make it sound so romantic.”

“Is that a good thing?”

“Is that really a conversation you want to be having? Here? Now?” The walls of the foyer a yellow floating dimly in the shiftless cloudy daylight. “Isn’t there a thing we’re supposed to do? Or go? Or was this just, what?”

“You can think of something more important?”

“Okay,” says Jo, and she takes a step back. Hands still on his hips. “Okay.” His hands fall to her sides, the pale leather of her coat. “Then first things first.” Brows puckered. “I need you, I, sorry. But. I need to know what the deal is with her.”

“The Bride?” says the Duke.

“Jessie,” says Jo. “Your, your driver.” Ahead a long dark staircase leads to the apartments on the second floor. “I had,” she says, “the most awkward conversation with her, back at the club. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what she knows, what she thinks is going on, I don’t, I don’t know what I know. I don’t know – this morning.” She looks down at her black boots on the threadbare rug, his worn brown brogues, the scratched copper ferule of his cane. “Was that something you wanted to do all week, too?” Lifts her head to look him in the eye. “Or was it just an itch, and we walked in while you were getting it scratched.”

It’s a long thin moment before the Duke says, “I’d like to,” and then he coughs to clear his throat. “Object. I’d like to object to the framing of that question – ”

“Yeah?” says Jo. She doesn’t let go of him. He doesn’t let go of her. His laughter’s soft and brief and he looks away a moment with a puckered smile. “I have a question, too, long as we’re all trying to figure out what it is we’re standing in.” Looking her in the eye. “Where were you during the coup? The attempted coup.”

At that Jo steps back again and lets go, and his hands fall away, find the stern hawk at the head of his cane leaning against the wall. “What?” she says. “Coup. I don’t – ”

“Did Her Highness not receive a jar or bottle or vial of medhu from the Soames Nell?” says the Duke, and Jo’s shaking her head, slowly. “Come on,” he says. “Did you or did you not go to visit the rabbits? And did she or did she not suddenly have such a flask, after your visit?”

“She didn’t say where she got it,” says Jo. “I didn’t ask her where she – ”

“And did she or did she not try to turn the medhu once she had it?” Partway along the hall beside that staircase burns an incandescent bulb, but its light doesn’t seem to fall anywhere. “Fact you’re not asking me what that means is enough to tell me she did.” The Duke shifts his weight, rubbing his leg, wincing as he says “Catch up. She’d done that, turned the medhu to owr, that’s Queen-stuff. She’d done that – not that she could, not without a King, but if she’d gone and usurped the rightful ruler – ” His cane raps smartly against the rug – “that’s a coup.”

“But she can’t do it,” says Jo. “Right? So what’s the problem?”

The Duke looks away a moment, the rustle of his tweed jacket loud in the foyer. “Do you know, Jo Gallowglas, the one thing that’s more upsetting to order, and routine, and a regular day you can take as it comes, than scarcity?”

“I bet you’re gonna tell me,” says Jo.

“Abundance,” says the Duke. Leaning heavily on his cane he sets off down the hall.

Jo watching doesn’t follow, doesn’t move from her spot by the door, lifts a trembling hand clawing slowly into a fist opening her mouth finally calling out exasperated “Duke!” and hurrying after. He’s saying “a consummation devoutly to be wished, but there’s gotta be a strong hand on the plow.”

“Yours,” says Jo.

The Duke turns there in the narrow hall lifting his cane the stern hawk up by his smile. “You see anyone else?” The door they’re standing beside opens suddenly. The woman in the doorway has long loose hair the color of steel and she wears a thick cardigan over a blowsy white chemise. The light behind her grey and chill. She wraps her arms about herself and shivers a little. “Your pardon, Your Grace,” she says. “I couldn’t help but hear you in the hall, your voice, and thought, now why make him knock, and wait?” There’s laughter behind her, and the sudden pound of footsteps, “Gotcha!” cries a girl, and “No! No! No!” cries another, and “No fair, Thya! No fair!” The woman in the doorway sighs and smiles tightly. Her cheeks blotched, her eyes rimmed red. “Girls!” she bellows. The giggles stifle. “Granddaughters,” she says. “But if you’d like to come in, Your Grace, I’d – ”

“Not today, Nan,” says the Duke.

“Well if you’re in a hurry I understand, there’s a lot of folks waiting themselves I’m sure – ”

“Not. Today,” says the Duke again, and she blinks as his words sink in, the blotches fading suddenly from her cheeks gone pasty white. “It’s just,” says the woman in the doorway, “even a pinch – with the Samani already this week and all – ”

The Duke lays a hand on her folded arms. “You got a little set aside,” he says. “You’re gonna have to make it do till next time.”

“Next time?”

“The very next. I swear it.”

There’s a toppling crunch of crockery and a mighty splash and shrieks of laughter now. “Girls!” bellows the woman in the doorway. “Artemita! Thyatira! Dionysia! Meganissi!” Turning in the doorway to glower back into the apartment. “You put that back right now!” The Duke grabs Jo’s hand and yanks her after him further down the hall. “Wait,” says Jo, “wait!” The door slams shut behind them. The Duke lets go. “If it’s such a problem,” says Jo, looking back at the closed door.

“You really want to be having this conversation right now?” He knocks on the next door down, two sharp raps with the head of his cane. “Right here?” The door opens, the frame of it filled with a huge figure of a man in a yellowed shirt and an unbuttoned charcoal pinstripe vest. Heavy eyes and a wrinkled daub of forehead planted in a nest of wiry hair, all grey and peppery black and coiling sprigs and shoots of white. A plump-bowled meerschaum pipe juts from somewhere below the eyes. One furred-knuckle hand swallows the doorknob, and leaned against the jamb the other’s not a hand but a hand-shape, cast in bronze and beaten with whorls of puckered dots. “Your Grace,” says a thick-napped voice around the stem of that pipe.

“Coffey,” says the Duke.

“Wasn’t expecting yez. Come in, come in. Mind you step.” He backs away and they step through, the Duke, then Jo, into an airy little room with white walls and pale blue carpeting, a long and angular sofa, a low shelf buried under a great bouquet of wildflowers. By the flowers a little stir of knickknacks, a glass ball with a wooden salmon suspended inside, a leather tobacco pouch, a ring of keys, a small framed photo of a bare-shouldered woman looking away from the camera, one hand up as if to hide her wrinkled neck. On the wall above a plain and simple compass rose in red and black, and the portrait of a jowled and scowling president from many years before. There’s a muffled thump from somewhere on the other side of that wall. Coffey waves at it. “All hours those girls drive old Nan hard,” he says. “What brings yon by.” His brass hand tucked under his arm.

“Lewis David Coffey,” says the Duke, “might I present the Gallowglas – ”

“You might,” says Coffey.

“ – the, ah, the newest knight,” says the Duke, “at court.”

Coffey takes the pipe from his mouth. The bowl of it’s a mermaid running a comb through her hair. “You want a medal for that?” he says to Jo, who’s still standing by the door.

“No,” says Jo.

“Good,” says Coffey. “They don’t alot me to give out the medals.” The pipe-stem’s back between his teeth. The Duke’s handing him something, a little plastic baggie. “What is it you’re looking at?”

“It stopped raining,” says Jo.

“Was it raining, then?” says Coffey, tucking the baggie into the pocket of his shirt. “Go on,” he says, and Jo gingerly walks across the parlor toward the great picture window in the opposite wall.

There are no trees in the window. There are no houses, no cars. There’s nothing but a seamless haze of blue-white sky over a yellow-grey strand, dull under light that falls from no particular direction. Beyond it out and out to a sharp edge stretches a cold and restless grey-green sea. The Duke watching smiles as Jo eyes wide lifts a hand to her mouth and “Oh” she says. “Oh wow.”

“Articulate, these new knights,” says Coffey.

“Look down the beach,” says the Duke. “Back toward the front of the place.” Stepping behind Jo, looking over her shoulder, pointing. “See them?”

A snap of white in the wind a long loose gown caught tugging against her legs and her back Ysabel her face in her hands stands barefoot there her black hair streaming before her a flag in all that wind. Beside her looking out to sea one hand on Ysabel’s shoulder Jessie in a grey houppelande too heavy to billow her blond hair wrapped in a wimple. Her other hand on a pole planted, a banner above them both, orange with a russet hawk. “Oh I can smell it,” says Jo. “The ocean.” Ysabel and Jessie stand there unmoving, only the wind, tugging banner and hair and gown.

“Well it’s right there,” says the Duke.

“Yez might well to look yonder,” says Coffey. He’s holding out a pair of binoculars. The Duke drops a plastic bottle of something viscous and milky into his jacket pocket so he can take them. Coffey’s brass hand points to a fishing trawler stationed not far off, someone in dark rain gear at the prow, watching the women on the shore.

“Duke,” says Jo, pointing back up along the strand. He lowers the binoculars. A low two-wheeled car drawn by two slow-stepping horses trundles along the sand toward Jessie and Ysabel. Standing in the car one hand on the slack reins a figure in a long gleaming hauberk and a polished silver breastplate chased with green, face hidden by a slit-eyed bucket helm. Above the car a banner, white with a yellow bee.

“See?” says the Duke, handing the binoculars back to Coffey. “I knew we were being followed.”

“Hey,” calls the Duke, lurching onto the sidewalk. “Chariot.”

Roland in the rain his hands in bicycle gloves on the roof of the car across the street, the reddish-brown car with the black stripe down the side. He’s saying “Princess, please” through the half-open window. Ysabel in the passenger seat leaning down a little back against Jessie looks up through the window at him and shaking her head she’s saying “Go, just go” to Roland.

“Chariot!” calls the Duke again.

Roland looks up to see His Grace stepping into the empty street, to see Jo in the doorway under the small model of a three-masted sailing ship. He looks back down into the car and says “Please come with me.”

“Chariot!” The Duke leans on his cane in the middle of the street and mutters “What am I, chopped liver?” to himself.

“Roland, it’s okay,” says Jo on the sidewalk. “We don’t need any – ”

“You!” Roland pounds the roof of the car and inside it Jessie flinches. “A month ago he had you chased through the street like dogs and now you ride about with him in his car?” Coming around the front of it to stand there his green track suit dark with rain. “You have the keeping of her! She is to be safe in your hands! That is your office!”

“You want to talk safe,” says the Duke, “as in houses, as in better than sorry, as in questions that aren’t, well – where were you the night those two got jumped on the train?”

Roland’s face jerks, goes quizzical, chin lifting, his hands in those gloves balling into fists and opening up again.

“Cat kitten in your mouth?” says the Duke. “Your zeal in keeping the office you lost to the Gallowglas is well-known. It’s well-nigh a joke. Half of everybody figures it was you under the Huntsman’s mask, losing yet another duel to the Axe.” The rain’s stopped. It’s all gone terribly still. “The Princess calls, she coughs and you come running. Except.” Water beads the shoulders of the Duke’s tweed jacket. The blacktop under his feet gleams wetly. “That one night.”

Roland says “This is none of your – ” and the Duke cracks his cane-tip against the pavement and the sound is thunderous. “I. Am. Not. Finished,” he says. Pursing his lips. “Best I can figure,” he says, “it was shame.” Roland repeats the word, “Shame,” in an oddly lilted voice. Jo’s watching him, watching them both, the Duke impassive, Roland trembling there at the edge of the street. Ysabel leaning over Jessie both of them watching through the rain-flecked driver’s window.

“Yeah,” says the Duke. “Maybe you were so ashamed at paying off an Old Town witch to concoct the fucking ambush that you couldn’t show your face to save the day – ”

“Liar!” roars Roland stepping out into the empty street, jabbing a finger at the Duke who cracks his cane-tip against the pavement again. Roland jerks to a stop still pointing at the Duke in the middle of the street. The Duke says, “Are you so sure of that, knight?” In the car Jessie’s face is in her hands. “Would you have it proved upon my body?”

Roland lowers his hand slowly, open, loose, the palm facing the Duke, there by his side he stretches it and begins to close his fingers about something, the air, when he stops. Eyes widening just he’s looking past the Duke who turns then to see Jo, stepping off the sidewalk, into the street, her butter-colored coat flapping, her face firmly flat, her cold eyes squarely aimed at Roland. “Go on,” she says, her voice clipped. Between them now. Roland’s hand closed in a fist as she steps right up before him. “Do it. None of this fucking around. Go on!”

“Jo,” says Roland, trying to get by, “take the Princess, go, I’ll find you – ”

“He’s goading you, you dumb sonofabitch!” Jo blocks him, arms at her sides, ducking her head to keep his eyes on her. “You’re dumb enough to fall for it, then go ahead, but let’s do it right, okay?”

Roland steps back from her now, his hand still closed in a fist about something that isn’t there. “I did not do what he says I did.”

“I don’t care!” cries Jo, and Roland’s mouth curls and sets and he holds his fist out at his side and he says, “I do,” and light begins to leak from whatever it is he’s holding.

The Duke says, “I’m sorry, Chariot.”

Roland shivers opens his fist with a silent flash. There’s nothing there. “What?” he says.

Jo’s turning now to look at the Duke, both hands still on his cane, hair limply damp. “I voiced my suspicions,” he says, voice calm, cool, “I spoke in hypotheticals, and did so without thinking. Your anger is entirely justified, and for it I offer a complete retraction, and apologize, without reservation.”

And no one moves, and no one says anything more. Somewhere blocks away a car alarm begins to whoop. The slow rain’s seeping down around them again. Roland says to Jo, “Please go to the car, and take the Princess back – ”

“Just go,” says Jo. “Get out of here. We’re fine.” He’s shaking his head about to say something. “I know what I’m doing,” says Jo. And Roland’s mouth curls again, and sets, but he ducks his head. Off away down the street a couple of cars are headed their way. The Duke’s taken a couple of steps toward his car, one hand out now to Jo. She doesn’t take it. Roland turns and with a little skipping jump sets off across the street, down the sidewalk, at a half-run now around the corner and out of sight.

The Duke lowers his hand. “Took you long enough,” he says.

“Shut the fuck up,” says Jo. Digging in the pockets of her coat she comes up with an orange pack of cigarettes.

“Your concern,” says the Duke. “Touching.” He limps over to the car. Jo follows him, cigarette in her mouth, stuffing the pack back, coming up with a silvery lighter. “I had to know,” says the Duke. Jessie’s climbing out of the car, levering the front seat forward. “I could give two shits,” says Jo, fumbling the lighter, clicking and clicking it again before it strikes.

The Duke leaning on his car shakes his head. “You are not doing that in my car,” he says.

“Then we can fucking wait five minutes,” says Jo, and she takes a long drag and blows smoke out into the softly falling rain, “while I settle my fucking nerves.”

The Duke watches her smoke a moment, Jessie standing there beside him, then he ducks down. “Princess,” he says. “Could I maybe reclaim my seat? This leg.”

“Actually,” says Ysabel, leaning back against the passenger door, “if you wouldn’t mind riding in back?” The blond Batgirl smiling from her tight T-shirt dress.

The Duke sighs. “Today,” he says, “is a day for capitulation.”

Table of Contents

rounding a Corner – Next Thursday – no Hullabaloo – to have gone Dancing – like Bubbles –

Rounding a corner the houses to one side fall away and there past a drop a sheen of still water and just past it low buildings a bright red roof like a circus tent a spindly Ferris wheel and a snaking curl of roller coaster. Across the river behind it all the hills of trees green-black and brown and orange dotted with houses and lights just starting to come on and then they’re past the gap and trees and houses take up that side again. “What the hell?” says Jo, craning her neck. The Duke beside her shifts, looks back as well. “Some kind of mini Disneyland thing down there by the river?” Endicott’s always back in time, sings a voice over a driving beat and popping guitars. Endicott’s not the cheatin’ kind.

“Oaks Park,” says the Duke. “You never been to Oaks Park?”

“Never heard of it,” says Jo.

“One of the delights of my demesne,” says the Duke. “We should go sometime. The rides are closed right now, but they got the rollerskating – hey, hon, turn right up there. I want to see something.”

“Fun?” says Jo, as the car slows, turns. “You’re asking me out on a date? We’re gonna put on rollerskates and listen to Journey?”

“Why not?” says the Duke, looking back through the rear window. Endicott keeps his body clean. Endicott don’t use nicotine.

“Would this be before or after the wedding?”

He looks away from where they’ve been, looks at her, crammed into the corner of the back seat in her butter-colored coat, arms folded tightly about herself chin tucked behind her shoulder one eyebrow hiked over cold and muddy eyes. He sucks his teeth. “I don’t know. What do you think, Princess? A solstice wedding?”

From the front seat without turning Ysabel says, “Why don’t we see if you survive the Throne before worrying about setting a date?”

The Duke snorts, turns to watch out the rear window again. “Feel the love in this car,” he says.

“Should I head on to Next Thursday now?” says Jessie.

“What?” says the Duke. “Yeah, just, find a cross street and cut on up. We’re good.”

“Thursday which?” says Jo.

Two residential streets, lined with parked cars, a simple intersection, the pavement of it painted in a great circle stretched from corner to corner in yellows and whites a sunflower faded by weather and traffic opening under the colorless sky. Houses sit comfortably at three of the corners windows lit here and there against the rainy gloom, and at three of the corners there by the sidewalks stands have been built, little kiosks of scrap lumber and windfall painted in primary colors dimmed with age. Jo’s standing by a sign that says Central Square over a bulletin board papered with note cards and post-its and photos and laser-printed flyers, guitarist sought, vegan nanny, found one cat, feng shui process development. Ysabel in her white trench coat stands with Jessie by a sign that says Tea over shelves laid with a couple of thermoses and some old mugs and cups and tins and cans of tea.

“Central Square,” says the Duke, standing by the reddish-brown car. He lifts his cane and points to the fourth corner. “And the Next Thursday Teahouse.”

At the fourth corner a high red gate freshly painted, white lights strung about it. Two old paned windows hang in the air to either side of it from wire just visible strung from tree branches and the gate itself. Beyond a ramshackle confusion gathers itself from windows and doors and bare wood, roofs of tin and translucent plastic aglow with lamplight, the trees of the lot winding in and out of the structure built around them.

“Your demesne contains such wonders as we’d never dreamed of, Duke,” says Ysabel.

“Yeah,” says Jo, to herself.

“Go on in,” says the Duke. “We’re expected. We’re always expected.” Ysabel takes Jessie’s hand and they walk across the sunflower toward the red gate. Jo angles toward the Duke still standing by his car. “Caught up yet?” he says, leaning on his cane.

“With what?” says Jo. “It’s been a long day.”

“With the point,” says the Duke.

“Yeah, yeah, the glory and the majesty of you,” says Jo. “We’re all impressed. What?” at his look askance. “You own a strip club. You own some coffee shops. You’re down with the anarchist bicycle collective and you support cartoonists and you take care of the old folks and what, you built this place with your own two hands?”

“I made it possible,” says the Duke. “Everything you saw today, I made all of it possible. I didn’t make any of it, I cleared the way and kept it safe so it could get made at all.”

“You,” says Jo, looking at his hands wrapped about the hawk at the head of his cane, “you should do earnest more often,” she says. Looking up. “It’s good for your eyes.”

“Go on,” says the Duke. Flexing his fingers. “I need to take care of something.”

Jo heads toward the gate, but stops just past the front of the car. “Hey,” she says. “What – what do I call you? I mean, Duke, hey Duke, it just seems a little weird.”

“Most,” says the Duke, limping around to the back of the car, “usually address My Grace.”

“Your Grace,” says Jo, smirking.

“Go on,” says the Duke. “Check it out. I’ll be there in a minute to show you the good bits.”

As she walks through the gate he pulls a single key from a pocket and opens the trunk. He leans in, wrestles a box to one side, reaches for another one toward the back, stops, sighs to himself, opens the first box. Inside maybe ten or so large plastic bags sealed with purple zip-locks. Two or three of them each filled in turn with a dozen little plastic baggies twisted tightly about thimblesful of gold dust, the rest fat with loose dust, untwisted, lighting the trunk with a fitful mimicry of daylight. He pats one, shakes his head, closes the box up shutting the color away. Reaches for the second box, lined with a garbage bag, and tries to tug it toward him but it’s caught. He reaches down, works something free, sets it to one side, a mask that could swallow half a head, white, crudely painted with thick black lines to resemble a grinning skull, a mane of long black hair dangling limply from it. Tugs the second box closer. Inside a glass jug sloshing with something viscous, white, frothed with a sheen of bubbles, a hint of warm yellow gold. From his pockets come jars and bottles and he sets them in the trunk there by the box. He uncaps the jug and starts pouring them in. As each is emptied he drops it in the box, in the garbage bag lining among other emptied bottles and jars. Some blank, unlabeled, some with labels worn away. Snapple. Fiji Water. He caps the jug again, shoves the box back in place. Clasps his hands together looking it all over for a moment. Then he shuts the trunk.

“Where is everybody?” says the Duke. He hangs his coat in a cozy little antechamber lined with Persian rugs. The only other coat hanging there’s a white trench coat, a white fedora on the hook above it. The light from ropes of white bulbs strung and tangled all about is dim but everywhere. The thumb-sized wodge of dust in the baggie he pulls from inside his jacket can’t quite manage to sparkle. “Hello?” he calls, tucking the baggie into the pocket of his collarless yellow silk shirt. Heading out into an uncertain room, angles and openings on all sides, the light still dim but all about. A rushing wash of sound, branches tossed by a wind heavy with water that’s not yet fallen as rain, lifting and rattling the tin sheets nailed above. His cane-tip dimples the rugs laid one on the other on another under his feet.

“Leo,” says the man stooping to peer through what’s yet another doorway. “I’m so glad you could come.”

“Quiet night,” says the Duke.

“We,” says the man unfolding himself into that uncertain room, “were supposed to have had the hearing yesterday.” Slip-on jogging shoes, loose grey sweatpants, a dark grey fleece pullover that says Tartans with a logo of a Scottie dog. “We spread the word to think of the Teahouse as – closed, this weekend.” The pullover’s zipped all the way up to his chin. His face all cheekbones and nose and eyebrows jutting. He’s wearing a black watch cap. “Win, or lose. I didn’t want a lot of hullabaloo.”

“But you didn’t have the hearing,” says the Duke.

The gaunt man shakes his head. “Been a bad week, Leo,” he says, and he holds up a hand, “it’s all right. Tonight it’s better. I’m okay. Okay.” His hand in a black knit glove, fingertips removed. “It’s been put off till next week.”

The Duke puts a hand to the pocket of his shirt. “I’ve got some more, Michael,” he says. “It’ll help.”

“We’ll talk,” says the gaunt man. “About that. But Jasmine’s down, from Seattle?”

“We don’t want to impose – ”

“No, no. Lauren’s here, too. We’re having an, an early supper. In the Heart. Just – try to keep it down?”

“Keep it,” says the Duke, and then, “oh. Of course.” Smiling. “Early. How can you tell in here?”

Another wash of almost-rain rattles the roof above them and Michael looks up, lays a gloved hand on a bare joist. “I should have torn all this down at the end of summer,” he says.

“We’ll talk about that,” says the Duke.

“Your friends are on the Smoking Porch,” says Michael.

Cigarette clamped in her mouth unzipping a long white boot Ysabel says “What do you think?” She tugs her boot off, points her foot, flexes her toes. Jo still in her butter-colored coat sits at the other end of the long low sofa, cigarette in her hands, hands dangled between her knees. The porch about them open on three sides, the roof held up by columns of peeled and polished unplaned branches. Past them over the tops of trees a grey stretch of river shining with what daylight’s left. “It’s incredible,” says Jo. “I had no idea any of this was down here. He must’ve been building it for years.”

“Not what I meant,” says Ysabel, unzipping her other boot, pulling it off. Jo looks over her shoulder. By the back wall Jessie in her grey chauffeur’s jacket hands behind her back is looking over a wall of stained and faded snapshots of people all of them taken in this room, with cigarettes, cigars, pipes in their hands, their mouths, a hookah stem, cigarette butts and cigar butts pinned in and around among the photos. Wind washes around the porch, tugging smoke from their cigarettes, the trees about them rolling like waves. “I think you have a thing for blonds,” says Jo quietly.

“Jealous?” says Ysabel, turning to stretch her legs down the length of the sofa, bare toes painted with gold glitter not quite touching Jo’s coat.

“I can call a cab for us whenever,” says Jo.

Ysabel shrugs. “As you wish.” Pulling her legs back curling arms about them chin on her knees. “But that wasn’t what I meant either.”

“You’re gonna marry him,” says Jo, and Ysabel lowers her knees to sit tailor-fashion, tugging her T-shirt dress down to cover her lap, stretching out the smiling blond Batgirl. “When the King comes back,” she says, absently stroking her belly, “then I will be Queen.” Leaning forward suddenly, reaching along the back of the sofa for Jo’s shoulder, the loose mass of her hair falling over one shoulder as she ducks her head, trying to catch Jo’s eye, Jo head down grinding her cigarette in the ashtray beside her. “What do you think of him?” says Ysabel. “Now that you’ve talked to him. What do you think of what you’ve gotten us into?”

Jo turns to look at Ysabel, and “There you are!” cries the Duke, in the low wide doorway to the porch. “I swear this place gets bigger every time I come.” Ysabel sits up, stubbing out her cigarette on the burn-scarred arm of the sofa. Jo’s looking down again. Jessie presses against the Duke and he pulls her into a one-armed hug. “We’ve pretty much got the place to ourselves tonight, which, unexpected, but hey, gift horses, whatnot.” He lets go of Jessie, stumps a little closer to the sofa. “Anybody hungry? Jo?” Ysabel’s stretching her legs out again, lying back again, tugging down her dress again. Jo shrugs. “There’s at least a couple of kitchens in here,” says the Duke, “usually stocked with this or that. We could assemble a picnic supper? How about it? Up for a quest?”

“Sure,” Jo’s saying, climbing to her feet. She heads past him into the low narrow hall lined with more rugs along the walls and black-light tapestries and ghostly batiked scrims. He pauses in the doorway, looks back, at Jessie, at Ysabel’s hand on the back of the sofa. “We’ll be back,” he says, “but minutes in here sometimes seem like hours? And vice-versa. Part of its charm.”

“Well,” says Ysabel, as the thump of his cane recedes. “I wanted to go dancing.”

“Well, talk to Leo when they get back,” says Jessie.

Ysabel sitting up leans over the back of the sofa chin on her folded arms. “Leo,” she says. “I see why he has you wear that jacket. You have fantastic legs. No, I wanted to go dancing just with you.”

Jessie says, “That’d be nice.”

“Nice,” says Ysabel. She tips her head back smiling looking up at the bare rafters roof rattling in another gust. “I wanted to go dancing with you,” she says, “in a room full of men we didn’t know. I wanted them to race each other to the bar to buy us drinks.” Jessie’s taken off her cap, she’s holding it in her hands, her back to that wall of photos. “I wanted,” says Ysabel, stretching, “them to be thinking of what they’d’ve been thinking they’d get to do to us,” and then she turns and lies back down along the sofa, “while the whole time we’d’ve known what we’d be doing to each other.”

Jessie doesn’t take a step toward the sofa. She doesn’t take a step toward the low wide doorway. Ysabel’s legs appear lifted straight up from the sofa bare feet pointed. “We would have pretended to go to the bathroom together,” she says, “and left them to fight over the bill.” Her hands appear working a scrap of black lace up the length of those legs. “In the elevator it would all have been too much.” Jessie lets her cap fall to the rug. “The doors would’ve opened,” says Ysabel, pulling one foot free, then the other, “and a couple of men would’ve been standing there, staring, and we’d’ve run down the hall to our room, laughing.” She lets the underwear fall from her hand behind the sofa, lowers her legs, hooking the one over the back of it her foot restlessly turning. “We wouldn’t’ve made it to the bed,” says Ysabel. Jessie stoops to pick up the underwear, stands, one hand on the back of the sofa. Ysabel sprawled along it the blond Batgirl lost in the wrinkles of her rucked-up dress and flashing there from the gold pin piercing her navel a bit of crystal. “And somewhere in all of that,” she says, “you’d’ve told me your name.”

“Rain,” says Jessie.

“Rain,” says Ysabel, holding up a hand. “Come here, Rain.”

“Michael St. John Lake,” says the Duke. “He was an architect or something? I don’t know.” He’s sitting at a picnic table painted with rainbowed swirls of graffiti.

“I got a can of sardines,” says Jo, kneeling next to some shelves built into an angle of this room where a slope of ceiling abruptly meets the walls. “And some pita chips. Stale pita chips.”

“Any glasses?” says the Duke. On the table five or six bottles, round and square, clear glass and green glass and deep deep brown. “Goblets? Paper cups?”

“No, no, and no,” says Jo, standing. She pulls her butter-colored coat from one shoulder, the other, lets it slide down her arms, drapes it over the shelf behind her.

“Decided to stay awhile?” says the Duke, as she sits across from him. He sweeps a hand over the bottles. “Lady’s choice.” She grabs a clear bottle and surprised he says “Whisky.”

“Did you?” she says, offering it to him, and he shakes his head and grabs a short fat bottle too dark to see through. “Gin for me.”

“So this Michael,” she says. “St. John Lake.” Unscrewing the cap to her bottle. “He’s not like you. Right?” She takes a swig. “He’s more like me.”

“In a world,” says the Duke, uncorking his, “where there’s only two types of people, sure. He’s more like you.” He sips from his. “Anyway. I heard about his ideas for suburban piazzas from somebody, I don’t know, and I thought – ”


“Central Square,” says the Duke. “With the street painting and the corner kiosks and anyway I wanted to see what one looked like, and have I told you you have nice shoulders? Because you do. They’re nice. You should wear stuff that shows them more like that. So says me.” Jo’s looking down, away, she takes another quick drink from her bottle. Her satiny black slip with simple ribbon straps no wider than a finger. “Why don’t you ever ask direct questions?” says the Duke.

Jo looks up, sets her bottle on the table. “I – ”

“No you don’t. Not when it matters.”

Jo rests her elbows on the table. “Okay,” she says. “Sometimes,” she says, looking at him through the thicket of bottles. “It’s like, if I did, about some stuff, sometimes, I think, I think you’d all just. Pop. Like soap bubbles.”

“People, like me,” says the Duke. Jo nods. “Well,” he says. “I’d like to think I’m a wee bit more substantial than that. Go on. Try me.”

“Okay,” says Jo, chin in her hands. “How old are you?”

“That’s a terrible question!” cries the Duke, rearing back. “How old am I. How fast is speed? How far is deep?” He takes a sip from his bottle and then leans forward both hands on the table. “I’m young at heart,” he says. Sits back. “Try again.”

Jo pulls something from her pocket, a wad of money clamped in a medium-sized binder clip, and opens it just enough to slip a gold credit card free. “Who pays for this?” she says, and she puts it on the table between them.

The Duke nods. “Better,” he says. “Better.” The card there gold and bright against the green and purple swirls. “You do,” he says.

“You said I’d never see a bill,” she says.

“You won’t,” he says. “You already paid for it.” He moves a bottle from between them, then another. “I confess,” he says. “It would’ve been a minor breach of protocol, but I went to them to see about a modest line of credit for you.” He slides the card back across the table to her. “Imagine my surprise to find you already had quite a substantial account.” Jo’s shaking her head, saying, “I don’t have any idea,” and the Duke takes her hand in his, leans forward, says “Careful, careful. Some things do pop like bubbles. Maybe you wrote something on a piece of paper and burned it. Maybe you answered three questions from a stranger. Maybe you whispered it into a tin can under a bridge, I don’t know, but don’t, don’t tell me. Don’t ever tell anyone what you said. Understand?” Jo nods. The Duke sits up a little. He doesn’t let go of her hand. “I maybe should have said something,” he says. “But, ah. I didn’t.”

“That’s,” she says, “Your Grace, it’s – thanks. Thank you.”

“Leo,” he says. “Call me Leo.” He frowns, looks over his shoulder. “Did you hear that?”

“What,” says Jo, “like a – roar?” Her hand is empty. “Leo?” There’s no one sitting across the table from her.

Table of Contents

Endicott written by August Darnell, copyright holder unknown.

“Sir? Sir?”

“Sir? Sir?” says the guard. “What’s your name, sir?”

“Ray,” says the man in the black leather jacket.

“Just Ray?” says the other guard on the other side.

“Well it’s not Ray Lemon or Ray Limeade or any other lame Sprite knockoff if that’s what you mean.” His bulging eyes are bloodshot, wet. His pink hair draggled into strange dark colors by the dim light in the lobby. “Who,” he says, “who lives on the top floor?”

“What?” says the first guard.

“Who,” says Ray. “A couple days ago I saw it all from the volcano.” He lurches toward the other guard and they both skip back keys a-jangle saying “Whoa, hey, whoa” and he stops, holds up his hands. “I know, okay? What has to happen. Only I really need to know who’s up there. Before I go.” He turns. They’re standing before a computer screen in the wall under a sign that says US Bancorp Tower. Touch screen for individual listings. “Okay? This thing is all alphabetical, not whatever it’s geographical. You know? And I really want to know who’s up there before I go. I mean that bang? There was a loud bang over across the river. Did you hear that bang?”

“Sir,” says the first guard, “we’re going to have to ask you to,” and the other guard’s saying “The 142nd.”

“What?” says the first guard.

“The Air National Guard,” says the other guard. “Sometimes they do flyovers? Maybe he heard a sonic boom.”

“Man, do not answer their questions, okay?” says the first guard.

“But it’s dead simple,” says Ray. “Who lives up there?”

“Fuck this,” says the first guard. “You watch him. I’m calling CHIERS.” He stalks off, keys ringing like bells.

“If it’s who I think it is,” says Ray, slumping back against the glass-covered wall, “oh God if it’s what I think it is.” Head in his hands, knees bending, falling slowly, slowly to the floor.

“It’s okay, man,” says the other guard. “They’ll take care of you. Get you dried out in nothing flat.”

“Oh no,” says Ray, “oh no no no,” hands scrabbling like turtles as he fails to push himself back up, “oh no that would be a disaster.”

“It’s okay,” says the guard. “It’s all gonna be okay.”

Table of Contents