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the Photographs on the Table –

Photographs scattered over the folding table, silvery black, ivory, muddy sepia, that one there tinted almost red, creases burring the corners and a long fold right through the middle of a group of men, their shapeless suits a black gone rusty brown. A stolid doorway behind them, columns rising up past a lintel carved with simple Gothic letters, Scottish Rite of Freemasonry. One of the men is tall and broad, his hatless hair bright white, and the younger, slighter man beside him laughs under the brim of a neat derby hat. The third of them’s quite somber in a simple jacket buttoned up to his throat, and something in his hands, but there the photograph’s been scratched, the ruddy tones of it scraped away.

Out under fluorescent lights, Ysabel approaches, wrapped in a filmy gown, feet bare on polished concrete. In one hand a glass half full of milk. “Jo?” she calls. “Jo?” Laying a hand on the high-backed black desk chair pulled up to that folding table, starting back at a bubbling grunt of a snore. Jo’s slumped over the photos, one folded arm a pillow, and a bottle there beside her, almost empty. Ysabel picks it up, brow quirking at the stylized yellow bee on the glass of it, the label that says Evan Williams Honey Reserve.

She sets the milk where it had been, and strokes Jo’s wine-red hair. Presses a kiss to her cheek. Straightening, she looks over the boxes stacked up against the back wall, regular banker’s boxes white and brown in mostly regular columns, four or five high, and some on the floor before them, and by the table, lids loose or propped open, and within them, so many more photographs.

As she leaves, she tosses the bottle into a blue recycling bin with some force, and a crash of glass.

Table of Contents

bright white Lines – Machismo – “Darling Mr. Davies” – What’s at Stake – a Blessing, and a Curse –

White lines gleaming, burnished by candlelight, angles that frame her belly, her breasts, her throat and face, her eyes closed below severely straight bangs, long yellow hair gathered by wide white ribbons in hanks over either shoulder. She’s laid back, settled against curves of golden brown, shadowed leg along the pale length of her atop the pillowy comforter, hip and belly, shoulder, dark arm curled about her, laid over that white paint, a brown hand tucked there, just between her thighs. She sighs, tilts up her head. “She’ll come around,” she says.

“Your sister?” says Ysabel, above, behind her. “She seemed fairly adamant.”

“You didn’t even ask the question.”

“It,” says Ysabel, “it isn’t that important, really.”

“How can you say that?” Twisting, squirming about, “No, I meant,” says Ysabel, and then, “careful, you’ll smear,” but “All our life,” she’s saying, “all our life!”

“And yet.”

“No!” Chrissie’s sitting up on an elbow, glaring down at her. “No! Even,” she says, “when we used to,” but she blinks, “swim,” she says. “When I.” She looks away. “When she.”

“Used to swim,” says Ysabel. A smudge of white paint there on her breast, and flecked with gold. “But you don’t, anymore? Did you forget?”

“Racing,” says Chrissie, still looking away. “Competitively. We did, we used to, we were, a scholarship. Couldn’t afford college, otherwise.”

After a moment, Ysabel says, “What happened, when you used to swim?”

“Have you, do you swim? Laps, I mean, not a lot of people race.”

“I can,” says Ysabel.

“It’s just, how easy it is, when, there’s, there’s other people, they’re all around, there’s even cheering, sometimes. Announcements, over the,” waving a hand, “PA. But you can shut it all out. It all, goes away. It’s just, you, and the water. For the sprints even, but especially the distance races, and you’re all on your own, cut off, it’s, easy to get, lost,” and a sputter of laughter, at Ysabel’s smile, “I mean, in a pool, but, all those laps? Up to sixty, in a twenty-five meter pool?” Looking away again. “So there’s signs.”

“Signs,” says Ysabel.

“Like a small whiteboard, or these plastic numbers you can swap out, or leaves, you can flop over, to change the number? And you stick it in the water, so you can see, as you’re coming in to the wall, what lap you’re on. So you don’t get lost.” Grinning at herself, but biting her lip. “But. Every race, see? She never missed one. Every time I swam a distance event, an eight hundred, a fifteen, when they let me, no matter what she had to do, she was there. Holding the sign. Keeping track.”

“She didn’t swim?” says Ysabel. “I thought you both swam.”

“It wasn’t fair,” says Chrissie. “It completely wasn’t fair.” Looking down, idly stroking the blurred white paint that slants up past her sternum. “It wasn’t even her pot, it was Jeff’s, but – zero tolerance, you know? She lost the scholarship. She had to drop out.”

“But you stayed.”

“I stayed. Another, I – three semesters. We weren’t going back.”

“But, you did drop out? You stopped swimming.”

A sigh. A kiss. “It bulks up your shoulders, distance swimming. If you don’t keep it up, you lose that. And anyway,” another kiss, “she was, we could, we were making better, well. More, money. Dancing. So.”


“So she’ll come through,” says Chrissie, and lays her head on Ysabel’s breast.

Some time later, she sits up, alone in the wide white bed. Ysabel, in candlelight, wraps herself in a filmy gown, “I didn’t hear Jo come up,” she says.

“What?” says Chrissie.

“I’m going to check on her.”

“Oh.” Chrissie flops back down on the pillows, rolling over. “Jo.” Those white lines carefully skirt an exaggerated lip-print drawn in red ink there, just below her breast. “Don’t worry about the bedclothes,” says Ysabel, “though you could get cleaned up, if you wished?” And she opens the door and steps out, into the hall.

Head back hunching grunt and tendons stark he’s squatted bare feet flat on the carpet jerking buttocks hands on hips she’s curled beneath him turned about her weight on her shoulders head a-cant and fingers at her red-painted lips legs loosely flopping cooing breathless slapping squeaking pop and slap that freezes suddenly silent, pop-eyed rictus skewed up in a corner of the screen, fishnet foot kicked up, fingers clenched and gripping dimpled flesh of thigh her eyes round in surprise beneath blue-painted lids. “It’s machismo, it what it is,” says the man on the big dark bed. “We’re not supposed to show you this, so we’re gonna prove we’re showing it to you. So throw out any artistry, anything that might come off like a trick, even a simple edit and you’ll go aha, you cut there, you’re hiding something, I got you. Spell’s broken.” His voice pitched to carry across that dim room lit mostly by the skin on the screen. “Nothing’s staged, there’s no attempt to move you, evoke anything, carry you anywhere, because every effort’s bent on making sure you see that these people were moved, went there, beyond any shadow of a doubt. So chuck ’em in a room, shoot whatever happens, there it is,” he lifts a tiny silver remote, “under the lights.” Those bodies lurch into motion, squeal and slap and grunt and smack as the view wheels, freezes again, blur of thigh, rimpled glisten of condom, arc of belly. “I mean, budget, sure. Budget’s a factor. But beyond a certain point,” folding his hands up, behind his head, “budget’s a fucking excuse. If you’ve got something to say, you say it, you work past that, you find a way.” The hair on his head too slickly black, his chest too wispily grey, his belly slack and his lolling cock, his limply legs, his angled feet. “It’s not without its charms,” he says. “But it’s crap. It’s all crap.”

“Even the tasteful, feminist stuff, Reg?” says someone on the other side of the half-open door there, light blazing on white tiles within.

“Crap!” he says, sitting up, tossing the remote clink to the bedside table. “This is, this ought to be,” he’s getting up, he’s crossing the room to that enormously lurid television, “the art of utopia,” he says, and he clicks it off, plunging the room into shadow. A slap of a laugh from behind that half-open door. “No, think about it,” he says, heading toward the bright slice of light on the carpet. “Utopia: you’ve settled your basic physical needs, safety and security all sewn up, you’ve clawed your way to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy.” The tile white under his feet, smokey grey up the walls, pebbled amber glass of a shower stall. She’s there before the sink, black towel about her hips, and her belly, her breasts, her throat and her face painted with angled swaths of black, sheenly smeared with handfuls of greasy white cream, long yellow hair tied back with a wide black ribbon. “Huh,” he says. “Those really aren’t extensions.”

“Tricks of the trade,” says Ettie, rubbing cream onto her cheek.

“I like it long,” he says. “Where was I. Needs, right, so! You’ve actualized yourself. Transcended yourself. It’s all good! There’s no loss to mourn, no lack to salve – what art do you make, then?”

“Pin-ups and money shots?” she says, daubing her face clean with a grubby white towel. “You’re talking about pornography, Reg. Come on.”

“Haven’t you ever,” he says, “described a dessert, as pornographic?” Stepping close. “Sensual. Pleasures. Evocations of, of those pleasures,” his hands uncertain, “of desire, of fulfillment,” one setting on that hip-slung towel, “do you realize, the pornography we see? Every day?” He leans close. “Menus,” he murmurs. “Catalogs.”

“You’re insane,” she says, rubbing at a stubborn blotch under her ear.

“It’s obscene,” he says, looking down, there, on her side, just below her breast, an exaggerated lip-print, cartooned in red, unsmeared with cream or paint. “You missed a spot,” he says, fingertips brushing the kiss but “Don’t!” she jerks about, slapping his hand away. “Sorry,” she says, as he steps back. “I’m sorry, I – ”

“Look,” he says, quite curt, his eyes gone stern. “Whatever it is, between the two of you? Fix it. Because, let’s face it. On your own?” Looking her up and down, her one hand clutching the towel. “You’re talented, sure, you’re good. Very good. But your tits are too small, your legs are too long, you’ve got that nose, and the overall,” waving a hand, “resting bitch gestalt. But together?” Spreading his hands, a shrug. “Together, you’re spectacular.” Stepping back, toward the doorway. “I’m paying for both of you. I’m going to get my money’s worth.”

He steps out, and shuts the door, gently.

Leaned against the fender of a sleek sedan, he’s not too tall, somewhat stout, arms folded in a sleek grey suit, grey shirt, grey tie. Watching a white SUV rumble down the narrow, buckled street under the lights fixed to the deck of the bridge above. It wheels into the space beside him, next to one of the slender, sharp-edged concrete piers. The rear door pops open as the engine cuts off, a high white boot slips out, and a bared pale thigh, brief white shorts and thin gold chains a-dangle, white halter deeply scooped and draped in a loose hood up about the black lines painted framing breasts and throat and cheeks, and straight yellow hair caught up in hanks by wide white ribbons. Coming around the back of the SUV, as tall, as slim, as severe, but dressed instead in black, black boots and shorts, black hood, angled white paint, and something of a smile about her lips.

“What do you think?” says Ysabel, still in the back seat of the SUV.

The man in the grey suit snorts. “Mama Rave and the Ravettes,” he says.

“Darling Mr. Davies,” says Ysabel, climbing down out of the SUV. “It is the Montage.” Ivory trousers bell about her ankles, and a long sleeveless tapestry coat, unicorn and maiden in a garden, picked out in colored thread on an ivory field. “Nice shoes,” she says, and he turns a foot, displaying his black and white spectators. “I doubt anyone will notice,” he says. “They’ll all be staring at you.”

“Why else go out, if not to be seen?” says Ysabel, but he’s offering his arm to the woman in white, “Shall we, Ettie?”

“Oh, he’s gotten better at this,” she says, taking his arm.

“He’s paid attention,” says Ysabel.

“You were both trying too hard, in the other direction,” he says, as Chrissie all in black takes his other arm. “Occupational hazard,” she says.

“It’s nice to see you both together again,” he says, as they set out, under the bridge, and then, a moment later, a bit too loud, “I don’t see any deathless paintings down here, at least?”

Ysabel brushes her fingers against the pier they’re passing, sprayed with a tangle of initials in bright orange, and a glyph in red, two dotted eyes cradled in a wide simple smile, and then she steps out into the street, “Look at them!” she cries. Throwing a bare arm up, a sweep of her hand, the slender piers rising abruptly to massive concrete caps that brace the girders of the bridge, thrumming with traffic, far too much weight to be borne up by such stalks. “Would you adorn this, with art? So graceless, so out of proportion – pieces, from a kit, slapped together and on to the next, like any other dreary overpass. Only a generation after the Lovejoy Ramp,” and as she’s speaking, Reg has freed his arms from Ettie and from Chrissie, leaving them on the sidewalk to step out into the street beside her, “and already they’ve forgotten how to listen. As if they know more about the building of bridges than the bridges ever could themselves. And yet,” she says, “even in such a benighted space,” her gesture now toward the corner there, three storeys of red brick building, upper windows dark, but down here in the shadows lamplight warmly shines over benches and small potted plants, muffled music, the laughter of someone stepping out of the door set in the corner of it, under signs that say Montage. “Commerce thrives,” says Ysabel.

“It’s one restaurant,” he says. “The building’s in dire need of restoration. Otherwise?” Looking about. “You-store-it warehouses, wholesale office junk, a parking lot – is that one of yours?”

“An art studio,” says Ysabel, pointing up the street to a low green building behind them, “the wonders that might spring, from soil such as this.”

“Yeah,” says Reg, looking past, across the boulevard beyond, to a pocket of grass, the crook of an onramp, a low tree harshly topped with green by streetlight, deeply shadowed beneath, where a cluster of makeshift tents has been staked and tied together, yellow tarps and blue tarps and plastic sheeting lit up within by flashlights and by camp lanterns, and shadows moving about. “I wonder. Let’s get ourselves inside.”

Heads turn as they make their way through the ochre dining room, chairs scrape here and there, pushed back for better views from long tables laid with white cloths and sparkling glassware, Chrissie and then Ysabel, Ettie, finally Reg, as orders shouted in the open kitchen, scrape and chop, a rush of flame, music loud and someone’s singing ai mambo, mambo Italiano! They’re led to a long table against the far wall, beneath a monochromatic cartoon of the Last Supper. Ettie and Chrissie slip around the end to lay hands on the chairs there, standing, being seen, as Ysabel and Reg sit down across from them, and then they sit themselves, shoulder to shoulder, a regiment of emptied wine bottles lining the shelf above their hoods, the black one, and the white. “Flatiron steak,” says Reg, waving away the menus their server’s trying to hand out, “rare as it’s legal, and a Ross Island iced tea. Girls?”

“Soup, or salad, sir?”

“Skip it,” says Reg, a bit terse. “Girls, what will you have?”

“Hoppin’ John salad,” says Ettie, and “Two forks,” says Chrissie.

“Something to drink?”

Chrissie opens her mouth to say something, but looks to Ettie first. “Water,” says Ettie, and Chrissie, shrugging, nods.

“Pesto mac,” says Ysabel, handing her menu back up, “and surprise me with something that has your vanilla vodka.”

“Splitting a salad?” says Reg, as their server heads off, and “We aren’t hungry,” says Chrissie, and “We’re just here to look pretty,” says Ettie. “Go on, do your business.”

“But you are our business,” says Ysabel.

“Yeah?” says Ettie, but “Look,” says Reg, “I know you’re ducking my calls. You think I’m angry. There’s been skipped appointments, lost opportunities, but remember: I work in a creative industry, too. I understand the process. Sometimes, it takes time. I respect that.”

Ettie says, “You’re about to drop a but, aren’t you,” the both of them looking at him.

“But,” he says, a bit theatrically, as glasses of water are set down, “there’s money at stake, and money to be made. For all of us. That needs to be respected, too.”

“I have, perhaps,” says Ysabel, “been guilty of monopolizing your attentions.” And then, to Reg, “Christienne has been most helpful in getting my foundation off the ground.”

He looks at her, blinks, “Your,” he says, “foundation,” and then he rocks back in his chair with a rumbling wheeze of a laugh, “you are a piece of work, you know that?” he says. “Why the hell can’t you go to your brother and tell him you don’t want the damn thing demolished? He can just, shut it all down! Problem solved. Art saved.”

Smiling just, she says, “But there’s money at stake, Mr. Davies. That must be respected. If I go to him as a sister – now that mother has retired, that would be all that I am. But if a foundation comes to him,” and her drink is set before her, tall, pale yellow, clinking with ice and a bright pink straw, “backed by concerned citizens, members of the arts community, sympathetic stories in the press, some of his own investors,” and she leans forward, for a sip.

“Some of?”

“You can’t think you’re the only one I’m meeting with.”

“I do, actually. I do.” Shaking his head, stirring his own drink tall and amber with a purple straw. “Cards on the table,” he says, lifting his glass for a gulp. “I donate some money to your effort to save the Lovejoy Ramp, lend you my name, say something nice in public, and you get out of our way,” he’s looking across to Ettie now, “let us get back to doing what we’d already agreed to do,” and to Chrissie, in her black hood, her white paint, sat across from Ysabel beside him, who lays her hand on his a moment, “The one,” she says, “has nothing to do with the other, and as he’s turning, frowning, “What?” he’s saying, Chrissie leans forward, blurts out, “We don’t want to do it anymore. The photos, the movies,” but Ettie’s saying, “We didn’t say that,” and “we want to do our show,” says Chrissie. “Our way. We can do that, now.”

“Whoa,” says Reg. “Okay?” Spreading his hands, smoothing the waters between them all. “There’s still some misconceptions. This is all, photos, whatever, you’re in charge. If you’d come to one of the meetings I’m setting up for you? The one, Tuesday, came down from Seattle, total punk-hippie chick, Femmerotic, her thing’s called. Totally tasteful. Completely feminist. Nothing you wouldn’t be comfortable with, okay?”

“Comfortable,” says Chrissie, sitting back.

“Nothing’s comfortable, under the lights,” says Ettie, looking to Chrissie beside her, leaning closer, shoulder to shoulder. “You look so pretty when you smile,” she says, and they’re both smiling suddenly, great wide sparkling grins. “Why don’t you put an arm around her,” says Chrissie, and she does. “Oh, that’s great.”

“Put your hand in her lap,” says Ettie, and she does. “Go on, a little higher.”

“You don’t really have to,” says Chrissie, tipping her head back, hood falling, baring her throat, “but it has to look like,” and “Give ’em what they want,” growls Ettie, as Chrissie curls her lips, an exaggerated moue, “Oh!” she says then, sitting up, leaning close. “I know we said you wouldn’t.”

“We’d never ask you to cross a line,” says Ettie, black paint brushing white.

“But if you’d just,” says Chrissie, the tip of her nose just by Ettie’s. “Like you were about to.”

“As if you just did.”

“Just to see.”

“We wouldn’t use it.”

“We wouldn’t have to use it.”

“Just once,” says Ettie, but then Chrissie turns aside, “So long as you’re comfortable,” she says, as Ettie sits back. Chrissie lifts her hood up into place, smoothing the hanks of her yellow hair, and those smiles are gone, and their blue eyes flatly cold. “It doesn’t matter what we say when we shake hands.”

“The photos are all that ever gets seen,” says Ettie.

“If we aren’t the ones calling the shots,” says Chrissie.

“What’s shot is what gets called,” says Ettie. “This isn’t our first rodeo.”

“But that’s what I’m talking about!” Reg leans close, both hands on the table. “Did you hear? How quiet it just got, when you were,” and his fist thumps once, a chime of glassware. “Attention was paid! And that kind of, charisma,” he looks back, over his should, and then to them again, “that magnetism, that can be monetized. Hell, it could be weaponized!”

“It will end up pointed,” Chrissie’s saying, but “That’s it, isn’t it,” says Ettie, and “at us,” says Chrissie, looking to her with a questioning frown, but Ettie’s looking at Ysabel. Glaring, even. “That’s the question, isn’t it,” she says, as Ysabel unperturbed looks right back. “That everyone wants to talk about,” says Ettie, “but nobody wants to actually, like, talk about.”

“Everybody?” says Ysabel.

“Do you want to see me,” says Ettie. “Do you want to see more of me. Do you, do you want,” but Ysabel’s shaking her head, waving a hand, “It’s not enough,” she says, “to ask the question. One must attend the answer.”

“Yeah?” says Ettie, shrugging off the hand Chrissie’s laid on her arm. “Well, attend this: no. No, I don’t. You absolutely terrify me.”

Chrissie’s staring, aghast. “Wait,” says Reg, “what?” Ysabel’s lifting her half-drunk glass. “What we call beautiful, we do quiver before it,” she says, and sips.

“Yeah, well, sometimes we quiver because it’s fucking wrong,” says Ettie.

“Would somebody please tell me,” says Reg, but there’s his steak, sizzling, swooped in, set thump before him.

A portrait propped on the mantel there, white beagle spotted black and tan, stood proudly in a field, trees low in the distance and a sky full of brushstroked clouds. The hearth beneath of yellow brick, fire chuckling on the grate, two wingback chairs pulled close before it, upholstered in pale pink with white roses. To one side a fussy credenza topped with cut glass decanters, to the other a low shelf, a single line of books, all of a height, and bound in the same blue leather. He runs a hand along the back of one of the chairs, looks about the room again. The fire shifts, settles, sparks pattering up the flue. His great beard is the color of mahogany, and his little round sunglasses in this uncertain light might well be green or purple. 

The door rasps open, there’s the Viscount Agravante, white dreadlocks touched with gold tied back, a salmon dress shirt open at his throat. “Mr. Keightlinger!” he cries. “Of course I remember you. Forgive the delay; I was upstairs, attending to Grandfather.”

“How is he?” says Phil, says Mr. Keightlinger.

“He sleeps,” says Agravante. “Something to drink?”

“No,” says Mr. Keightlinger, after a moment. Agravante’s pouring something clear into a glass. “Sit,” he says. “So.” Corking the decanter. “How is Charles.”

“Charles? Was,” says Mr. Keightlinger, “not Lier.” His hand still on the back of the chair. “Lier was a wig.”

“You don’t say,” says Agravante, plucking an ice cube from a bucket. “A wig?”

“Do you have the boon?”

“You haven’t taken your seat,” says Agravante, coming around the other chair. “Are you certain I can’t offer you anything?” He sits. “Tell me, Mr. Keightlinger. Do you have any family?”

“The boon, sir, that was given to you last year. Do you still have it?”

Agravante sips his drink. “I know you are not a rude man. I cannot abide the ill-mannered.” A gesture, toward the other chair. “Please.”

“In my work,” says Mr. Keightlinger, as he sits, “I have been many different people. Some had family. I couldn’t say which were real.”

Agravante lifts his glass, a salute. “You’re a magician, aren’t you. Magicians rarely have family, in my experience. You’d rather wield blessings and curses, than homilize about them.”

“As you say, sir.”

“As I say.” He chuckles, and leans forward to set his glass on the low table between them. “They know you, family, better by far than anyone else, but that knowledge fixes you, holds you fast. It squeezes. And yet,” sitting back in his chair, “when allegiances follow fortune, and philosophies change with the cut of one’s suit, still: one’s family is always one’s family. There’s a comfort to be taken, in that.”

“I wouldn’t know, sir.”

“Of course. Of course.” The crackle of the fire. His elbows on the arms of the chair, his fingers steepled. “I was to hold the boon, and keep it safe, and undisturbed, until he asked for it again. You,” those fingers tip, point, “are not he.”

“As I said, sir, Lier was, a mask, an illusion – ”

“A wig, yes. Am I not bound by the word I’ve given a wig?” A shrug of those hands. “Perhaps your companion from that evening could resolve this dilemma.”

A rustle of that beard, as his sunglasses turn from the fire to Agravante, the lenses settling, for the moment, on green. “You know where he is.”

“Do I.” He picks up his glass. “As to what was given me, it’s on the mantel,” and there, set before the portrait of the hound, a fiendish little basket-box, “safe,” says Agravante, as Mr. Keightlinger leaps to his feet, “and undisturbed.”

Mr. Keightlinger turns it over in his hands, the dark red wood of it seamless, corners knurled, faces carved with simple, stylized shapes, a mountaintop, a raindrop, a sunburst, a quartered circle. And then he lifts it up and brings it down, crack against the mantel, and up again and down, a splintering crunch. He swallows it up in both his hands, prying with thick fingertips, a grunt, arms trembling, a sudden twist and a snap like a branch, breaking. One of those hands lifts away from the other and in the palm of each a jagged half of basket-box, edges red, the hollowed wood within a smoothly yellow.

“Where is he,” says Mr. Keightlinger.

“Who,” says Agravante, serenely getting to his feet.

“Where!” Thrusting one empty half of the box at him.

“The box was kept safe, and undisturbed,” says Agravante. “As to what was held within,” and a shrug, stepping back as Mr. Keightlinger hurls that half into the fire. “If he does not like what I have done, why, surely he’ll return? To let me know?” The sliding door rasps open. Mr. Keightlinger’s leaned against the mantel, the other half still in his hand. “Do be so good as to show yourself out,” says Agravante.

Table of Contents

Hand in Hand – two Storeys, or three – how it Works – Commitment – the What of the Bandit –

Hand in hand from glaring sunlight wisp of bare feet thump of shoes, a sudden swell of darkness as the door swings shut behind them, shadows to foil yellow hair and gleaming shoulders, arms limned with the last of that thin-stretched light. “Wait,” says Ettie, pulling Chrissie back to her, pulled close, and arms folding about and cheek by cheek, an embrace there before a washer and a dryer, hidden away under a drape of patterned cloth. And then, “How could you,” she says, stepping back.

“She asked.”

“It’s been two weeks.”

“I know.”

“How could you possibly.”

“It’s been two weeks.”

“God,” says Ettie. “You smell like a piña colada.”

“We burn so easily.”

“You’ll spoil the look.”

“It’s, like, SPF 150 or something.” And then, “You could lay out, too – ”

“As if,” says Ettie. “You left!”

“She asked.”

“She’s asked a lot of people!” cries Ettie. “Whatever it is. I’ve met some of them. They all,” and then, throwing up her hands, “dammit, she broke your heart!”

“But my heart isn’t broken,” says Chrissie. On her side, there just below her breast, an exaggerated lip-print drawn in a red gone black in the shadows. Ettie shakes her head. “You’re, you’re under a,” she says, “it’s like, she casts a – ”

“Magic?” says Chrissie, catching her hand. “C’mon,” she says. “I’ll show you some magic.”

Hand in hand out into a hallway under strings of little yellow lights, a confusion of doors, Chrissie’s hand on the knob of the one to the left when one of the ones to the right pops open on white tile and Jo, blinking, all in black but her red Chuck Taylors, her wine-red hair, frowning as she takes in the two of them, severe yellow hair and blue eyes startled, Ettie in a black tank top and yellow tights, and the pale bare length of Chrissie, opening the door. “Oh,” says Jo, “um, hi,” but Chrissie’s pulling Ettie in after her, “so you’re, ah,” Jo’s saying, but Chrissie slams the door, leans back against it.

“Who was that?” says Ettie.

“That was Jo,” says Chrissie. “You know Jo.”

“Right.” Looking about, the white walls, the high wide bed piled with white pillows, long white curtains drawn over the windows. “The surly housemate.” Ettie parts them just enough to look out, down, the cars parked along either side of the tree-lined street below. “So this is where the magic happens,” she says, letting the curtain fall from her hand, turning back to Chrissie, leaned against the foot of the bed. “Where’s your things? Your clothes? Your underwear, dumped all over the floor? The lavender oil, the wobenzyme, you left all your supplements, I don’t even want to think what you’re doing to our hair,” but Chrissie’s saying, softly, “I have a shelf in the medicine cabinet, a drawer in the dresser, and I have,” standing, stepping across the white rug, “we have,” she says, laying her hand atop the dressing screen there in the corner, a simple frame of whitewashed wood, and panels of plain linen. “This,” says Chrissie.

“I don’t,” says Ettie.

“Watch,” says Chrissie, slipping behind it, ducking behind it, a rustle, a thump, and then from the other side of it slips a shining black boot, planting its outrageously thick sole, wobbling a moment shift to find a balance bared knee thigh up the hip a black skirt shinely vinyl clinging corset-tight about her breast and up a hood to swallow head a blank glass diver’s mask that’s sweeping, back and forth, arms held out in tight black sleeves stretched down and down, past hands and down to join an empty swaying loop swung back and whirling forth and up, a tottering wide-hipped step, that cyclopean eye tilting, tipping, looming close. Ettie takes hold of the mask with both hands, tugs it awkwardly up, there’s Chrissie, blinking, holding still as Ettie peels the bottom of the hood down past her chin, freeing a delighted smile, “See?” says Chrissie. “See? Baba Yaga!”

“La cabane sur des pattes de poule,” murmurs Ettie.

“Allegro con brio!” cries Chrissie, lurching back, those thick soles clomping in time. “We can even,” swinging the loop of her arm again, “have the sleeves linked, like a chain. The twisting and binding dance? All seamless! They won’t rip! And the quick-change, at the end?” Quick mincing steps close to Ettie. “Think of something. Anything.” A hunch of a shoulder, offering the loop of her arms for Ettie to take. “Don’t tell me. Just, keep it in mind, and come on. Step back with me.”

Ettie lays a hand on the slick black sleeve.

Together to the screen, then, and Ettie leads the way, backing behind it, “There,” says Chrissie, sidling sidelong in those boots, stooping, and a rustle. The curtain stirs before the window, the merest shift of air in that white room, and the afternoon light.

First one, then the other, out from behind that screen, their yellow hair quite long now, past their chins, brushing bare shoulders and down, each in the same brief chemise, bluely translucent, skirling about their hips, their buttocks bare, and their long bare legs, their bare feet soundless on that rug, their faces hidden by black domino masks, eyes covered over by wide white lenses, wickedly surprised, laughing, and a fluttering rush of words between them, “comic strip” and “yes, indeed” and “exhibition!” and “inappropriate for dinner” and “but a dance?”

Shuffle-step, twirl, hands catch hands to pull close, each archly looking away, a push apart to spin about, but there, oh there, under an upraised arm, she stops, a sudden hitch in the works. Seize and yank to crash together arms about pressed tightly, masks clacking nose to nose, their lips a fierce quick kiss. Then Ettie shoves away, turns away, steps away, toward the window.

Chrissie peels the domino from her face. “We can do it,” she’s saying, “we can do it all.” Tossing the mask to the bed. “Maybe she can’t give us nearly as much money, but think of what we won’t have to spend!” Holding out her hand, but Ettie’s white-eyed mask turns back to her, that blank gaze a bit downcast, and Chrissie follows it back along her outstretched arm to her side, the lip-print there, just visible through the gauzy chemise. “Oh,” she says, “oh, that isn’t, we were just, it was a game, this morning, she drew it there, with a marker, it’ll wash off,” and then, “I can fix it.” Looking about. “I can fix it.” Over to the dresser, lifting aside papers, a glossy contact sheet, thumbnails of bridge-columns circled in red, “Aha,” she says, and holds up a fat red marker. “Go on,” she says, to those empty eyes. “Take it off.”

Ettie crosses her hands, tugs the chemise up and off, drops it to the rug. That mask still fixed in place. Holds her arm up and out of the way as kneeling Chrissie leans close, a hand on her belly, marker hovering, “Here we go,” she says, and sketches quick a curve of lip. “Just the same,” she murmurs, and another stroke of the marker. “Just the same.”

“Huh,” says the woman in the long, silver-buttoned black coat, stopped on the landing, a hand on the railing of the next flight up. “I would’ve sworn, in court, this building? When we were outside, it only had two storeys.”

“Three one two,” says Ettie below her. “Third floor.”

That next flight ends in a narrow landing, just large enough for the both of them to stand before a plain brown door. Black numerals, 312, hung above a peephole, the rim of it pitted with rust. The woman in the long black coat lifts a hand to knock, but reaches instead for the little grey hat on her head, resettling it, dimpling the pinch in the crown. “Ready?” she says to Ettie behind her, in a pale blue ski jacket, yellow tights. Ettie just reaches past to rap smartly on the door.

It’s opened by Iona, tall and broad, her close-cropped hair a virulent chartreuse, a white bolero jacket over a white and gold maillot, and golden basketball shoes on her feet. “Goodness,” says the woman in the long black coat, and then, “Hi. Anne Thorpe, to see Ysabel Perry.”

“Her majesty’s expecting you,” says Iona.

“Majesty,” says Thorpe, with a hint of a smirk. And then, “This is my assistant,” with a gesture back to Ettie, “Stephanie, ah, Stephanie – ”

“Halliwell,” says Ettie. “Stephanie Halliwell.”

“They’re in the garden,” says Iona, stepping back to let them in.

“Garden?” says Thorpe.

Down a hallway under strings of yellow lights, opening the last of the doors at the end there, and through a narrow dark room, bulky machines stacked up under patterned cloth, and opening a door at the other end on a blare of light that washes over as they come out on a little wooden porch, a single step down to lush grass spread out to low parapets, here and there islands of the building’s infrastructure, a ventilator hood, chimney pots, the bulky box of a fan. Wooden tubs hold small trees brightly green, and a raised bed there bubbles over with flowers, pale daffodils and tulips red and violet, a froth of pansies orange, yellow, pink and white and just past that two Adirondack chairs, unpainted, draped with thick white towels. On the one laid out on her back is Chrissie, eyes closed, shining slickly pale, the other Ysabel, a gleaming golden brown. “Oh, hello,” she says, sitting up on her elbows. “I wasn’t expecting you so soon.” The both of them quite nude.

Thorpe struggles with her smirk. “We can, wait inside,” she says, “or come back later,” but “No,” says Ysabel, “no,” reaching for a pair of smokey aviator sunglasses. “Unless this makes you uncomfortable?”

“Just trying to figure out if this is more Helmut Newton, or LaChapelle,” says Thorpe, watching as Iona drags over a couple of floppy white hassocks. “Oh,” says Ysabel, “you know these first really sunny days. The temptation’s always to overdo it.” Thorpe drops heavily into one of the hassocks as Iona adjusts the fit of her bolero. “Something to drink?” Ysabel’s saying. “Shall we take your coats?” Thorpe shakes her head. “How about you, Ettie?”

Chrissie opens her eyes. The shadow looming, blue ski jacket, Ettie fiercely haloed, and whatever her expression might be lost in all that glare.

“It is good to see you again, Ettie,” says Ysabel.

“Her assistant,” says Ettie, abruptly, stepping out of the light. “I’m her assistant.”

“Of course,” says Ysabel.

Chrissie sits up, an arm folded under her breasts, hand pressed to her side, as Ettie lets her blue jacket drop to the grass. “I’ll have one of those,” she says.

On the table between the Adirondack chairs a couple of cocktail glasses, something palely green in each, though much less in the glass on Ysabel’s side. “Gin and absinthe, darling – a Dortmunder, isn’t it?”

“Dorflinger,” says Iona, stooping to pick up the jacket.

“Do make another,” says Ysabel, “for everyone,” but Thorpe’s shaking her head again, “Just water, for me,” she says, and “Of course,” says Ysabel, “certainly, but make her one anyway, in case she changes her mind.”

“I never drink when I’m working,” says Thorpe. Her smirk has curdled.

“Is that what we’re doing?” says Ysabel.

“In theory.”

“How does this work, then.” Ysabel lies back in her chair, reaching over to lift the lid of a small brass box, there by her glass, fingering out a cigarette, a ragged matchbook, and “Well,” says Thorpe. “I ask you a series of pointedly leading questions, which you just as pointedly ignore in favor of your own narrative, and whether that’s a meandering stream of consciousness, or a smoothly machined message that will not be derailed, I guess we’ll find out soon enough. Then, because this is entirely on spec, a couple weeks, a couple months, whenever I manage to place it, I’ll write something that paraphrastically bears little to no resemblance to whatever notes I bother to take today, which matters less than you might think, because whichever editor will massage the piece beyond all recognition to fit whatever they had in mind when they bought it. Now. If you’re lucky, they’ll spring for a round of fact-checking, but don’t let it fool you: what seems perfectly, straightforwardly correct by itself in a question comes out utterly, improperly off in an expository paragraph, and you’ll demand a correction, which maybe they’ll print, but who gives a shit, since nobody who reads the original piece will ever notice it, and anyway all anyone ever remembers is the headline spat out at the last minute by an intern who only ever skims the first couple of paragraphs of whatever the hell this will end up being. So.” She smiles, she shrugs. “Shall we get started?”

Ysabel tilts her head, blows out a stream of smoke. “What about pictures?”

“Pictures,” says Thorpe. “Is that why you went to all this,” a hand, waved about, a chuckle, “that, all that comes much later in the process. If at all. And the art director will set that up. If they even have one. Nothing to do with me; I’m just the writer.”

Laid back in her chair behind those amber glasses Ysabel lifts her cigarette for another drag, and the crackle of the coal at the end of it. “I meant,” she says, “pictures of the Ramp. The columns beneath it. The artwork, that I want to talk about. That we want to save. Even if you have no say over artwork, perhaps looking them over might help you focus your, what’s the word, pitch?” Another drag. “Is that the word?” And then, “I can go put on a wrap, if you’d rather.”

“No,” says Thorpe, and “no,” and then, “all right,” leaning forward on the hassock, “sure. Let’s see ’em, if you got ’em.”

“Chrissie?” says Ysabel, those amber glasses still fixed on Thorpe. “Could you hand them to me, please?”

Chrissie, still sitting up, still folded about herself, leans over, lifts her glass from from a crisp new manila folder on the table, the sheen of it blemished by a single drop of something, liquor, sweat, oil. Ysabel takes the folder from her and opens it in her lap, and within are five or six black-and-white photographs, pillars shadowed by the deck of a bridge overhead, set in cracked pavement, and murals on each of them, a scribbled bird perched on a bulbous nose grown from a scraggled sketch of a tree, a faded hint of a swan above a sheet of simple music, a monstrous owl of ribboned feathers, clutching a pen, above a scroll marked with words, till he dead. She hands one to Thorpe: a chalk-robed hermit pushing against the very edge of his column with a staff, a lantern held up by his shortened arm. “Huh,” says Thorpe.

“These are just a few,” says Ysabel. “I had them blown up, as examples.” Iona’s stepping off the porch, a tray in her hands laden with fresh cocktails. “There are seventeen distinct pieces, on a dozen columns, painted, or drawn, I suppose, some three generations ago – ”

“By Athanasios Stefopoulos,” says Thorpe, “who worked as a night watchman for the railroad, back in the day. Just passing time between trains.” A hand up, waving away the tray Iona proffers. “I’ve been known to do the occasional lick of homework.”

“We called him Tom,” says Ysabel.

“Did we,” says Thorpe, as Chrissie suddenly swallows what’s left in her glass, then lifts Ysabel’s away, clearing room as Iona sets down one by one filled glasses, astringently green in the sunlight.

“Back in the day,” says Ysabel, as Ettie snaps out a hand to Chrissie, “Come on,” she says. “The columns are well-known,” Ysabel’s saying, “an unofficial landmark of the city, appearing in a number of films, some quite famous,” but “Come on,” says Ettie, her hand still outstretched. Chrissie’s turned away, she’s handing the empty glasses up to Iona. “Let’s go,” says Ettie.

“I’m enjoying myself,” says Chrissie, laying back on her towel. “The Ramp,” says Ysabel, “well, the Viaduct, I suppose, to be pedantic,” but Ettie seizes one of the full glasses from the table and drinks it off at once. “There,” she says, daubing her lips with her wrist. “We’re even.” Her other hand still held out.

“The Ramp,” says Ysabel, “is due to be demolished in July.”

“By your brother,” says Thorpe.

Ysabel inclines her head, a point of order, “The Department of Transportation has the keeping of the Ramp,” she says, “as they maintain the, infrastructure,” savoring the word, “of all the bridges that the city owns.”

“It’s gonna be knocked down by a contractor working for the River District development consortium,” says Thorpe, “if we’re gonna be pedantic.”

Ettie hurls her glass to the grass, “We’re going home,” she says, snatching at Chrissie’s hand, but “Don’t be ridiculous,” says Chrissie, slapping her hand away, and “Girls,” says Ysabel, then.

“Fuck you,” snarls Ettie.

Those amber glasses turn, look up to her, the smile serene beneath them. “Tell me, Ettie. Have you checked your messages?” Thorpe’s looking down, at the little grey hat in her hands. “What?” says Ettie, after a moment.

“Have you checked your messages?” A fleeting lick of her lips. “I believe Mr. Davies has been trying to reach you.”

“Ah, he’s texting, emailing, he’s pissed because we’re totally blowing him off,” that last, forcefully, to Chrissie. “All these meetings he wants to set up, with photographers?”

“Actually,” says Ysabel, “today, I think you’ll find he wants to know if you are free for dinner.” Thorpe turns away, looks over her shoulder at Iona, waiting patiently by the porch. “Dinner,” says Ettie.

“We’re meeting tonight, the two of us, you see, and thought it might be swell to have the two of you along. It’s in a restaurant,” a mocking lilt to that smile now, “in public. Chrissie? Why don’t you take your sister inside, to find something nice for you both to wear tonight. Leave me and Ms. Thorpe to finish our discussion without distractions.” Chrissie’s already getting to her feet, and “Um,” says Ettie, taking the hand Chrissie holds out to her, “wait,” stumbling as she sets off after Chrissie across the grass.

“I prefer Miss Thorpe,” says Thorpe, then.

“Miss?” says Ysabel. “How charmingly old fashioned.”

“Nah, it’s just – when I commit to a bit? I commit,” says Thorpe. “Now. This Mr. Davies? Is that Reginald Davies? High-end niche marketing guru, budding property developer?”

“You have done your homework,” says Ysabel.

Here there are languid golden blossoms stuffed with soft cheese, and shards of pastry topped by baked apples and onions, misshapen little waffle-lumps under clouds of cream and fresh berries, piles of nuts that shine stickily, dustily dulled with spices, palm-sized tarts filled with savory custards of yellow and pale green and pink, toast soldiers smeared with smashed green peas and twists of mozzarella, yellow leaves of endive cupped like boats, freighted with glistening cabbage and broccoli slaw and shreds of pickled carrot, but it’s a tight-wound knot of crispy noodles, stickily clung with finely chopped herbs, that she plucks up, turns over, “These look good,” she says, popping it in her mouth.

“It all looks good,” says Luys, hands in the pockets of his brown jeans.

“I don’t see the Duchess,” she says, chewing. Her hair strung with beads, bare chest darkly freckled.

“You’re Zeina, the new Mooncalfe?” he says, and she nods. “Perhaps it’s best she’s indisposed.” He steps back from that laden table, all in brown, deep brown blazer, shirt striped brown and cream, into the crowd that mutters about the high wide room, a great wall of glass curving above them, dark trees beyond, and away past a glimpse of city the lone tooth of a snowcapped mountain. A brief nod as he approaches the only chair in the room for the Marquess, stood there in a slim grey dress, her only jewelry the vambrace strapped to her forearm, and the Soames in a green plaid suit, a meshback cap on his head, Trucks That Mean Business, it says, over the bill. “Mason!” he cries. “Has the Duchess arrived?”

“She is indisposed, my, ah, Excellency. I’m to convey her apologies.”

“Shame,” says the Soames. A burst of laughter from the Viscount yonder, throwing back his white-locked head, clapping the shoulder of the short wide knight beside him. Still chuckling, he approaches the chair in his blue suit, a colorless drink in his hand, to stand there by the Marquess, “Mason,” he says, “good of you to fill in,” and “She is indisposed,” says Luys, but catching himself, a tight nod, “of course, m’lord. I will do what is asked of me.”

“You’ll do fine,” says the Viscount, as the crowd all about shifts, turns, falls still. The King’s stepping out of the hall there, into the high wide room, his white dress shirt, his black trousers, his coat of shimmering gold and black, his shock of orange hair bobbing with greetings, handshakes, a wave for someone across the press of them all. A woman in a purple gown, black scarf wrapped about her hair, leans close as he thanks an older man in a bucket hat, to whisper something in his ear. The King straightens, she daubs something white from the corner of his jaw, he grins, and a flash of something sheepish. And then more nods, more hellos, more shakes of hands until “Okay!” he says, and a single sharp clap. “Let’s get this audience started,” and flipping up the tails of his coat, sits him down. “We have a letter,” pulling a folded sheet from a pocket, “well, an email, from our cousins Sigrid and Clothilde, offering gratitude for the condolences we have expressed, at their tragic loss.”

“Would we had more to offer than condolence,” says the Marquess.

“The police have had had no luck?” says the Viscount, silkily.

“This is no matter for police,” says the Marquess, sharply.

“No?” says the King. “The assailants were mortals.”

“Hounds, majesty,” says the Marquess.

“She means a bunch of bums and beggars, sir,” says the Soames then, “will do for cash, when owr’s short for my boys.”

“Southeast has been known to make use of them,” says the Viscount, and Luys speaks up, then, “I assure you, sire, all, the Duchess has not – ”

“Hold a moment, Mason,” says the King; “these waters are more deep than they first seem. You know these hounds, Soames? They have a kennel?”

“A house in St. Johns, sire,” says the Soames, “on Leonard Street,” but the Marquess says, “It’s not the kennel we should seek, majesty, but the leash, and the hand that loosed it.”

“We know enough of husbandry to follow a simile,” says the King, sitting back, tucking the paper away. “Which of them do we think, then? Alaric? Alphons? Euric?”

“Perhaps, sire,” says the Viscount, “we should think beyond the Barons?”

The room about’s gone breathlessly still. Luys opens his mouth, but closes it at a look from the King, who says, “You’d have us look to someone in the room?”

“Of course not,” says the Viscount, a hand to his breast. “The Baron Medardus was poised,” and his look slips from the King to the woman stood behind the chair, in her headscarf and her purple gown gone redly iridescent, “to make a great leap up. Any of the great and growing number of players ranged about our city might’ve feared such a shift in our balance.”

“Are we grown so precarious?” says the King. “Very well. Soames: beard these hounds in their kennel, find this leash, follow it back to the hand. We would have news for our cousins when next we speak. You’d make an amendment, Linesse?”

The Marquess, swallowing something, shakes her head quickly.

“In the which case!” says the King, and a clap. “What new business for the court?”

The stirring of the crowd then, looking about to see who might be next to speak. The Viscount with a winsome shrug says, “Perhaps it’s best if Southeast were to address us?”

“Mason?” says the King, but Luys shakes his head, “My lords and ladies, sire, her grace has nothing to impart.”

“But good sir knight,” says the Soames, “what of the bandit?”

The gasps, the looks, the murmured asides. “It is all that anyone might speak of,” says the Viscount. “Why, but moments ago – Gwenders! Gwenders, come away from those hors d’œuvres a moment, come here,” and the shuffling, the chuckling at that, the steps and turns about, there’s an older man in a bucket hat, windbreaker and cargo shorts, brown socks and shower slippers, “Excellency,” he says, studiously avoiding Luys’s dumbstruck glare.

“You were just telling us,” says the Viscount, “you were robbed this very morning, weren’t you.”

“Late last night, as might be counted. In through the back gate, off the alley, and out laid my boys with that bat o’ hern. Great flopping head of a horse. Threatened the glassware, and mine own noggin, did I not bring direct the Addition’s portion, or that as left on’t.”

“We hope your lads are recovering,” says the King, and Gwenders nods, “Gracious to’ve asked, sire,” but the King’s continuing, “Ladd’s Addition, though, correct? In Southeast?”

That’s when Gwenders looks to Luys. “Aye, majesty,” he says, “but it’s Hob’s own, getting word to her grace these days.”

“Gwenders felt he might do well to bring the matter before the court,” says the Viscount, “and I couldn’t but agree.”

“Majesty,” says Luys, but the Soames is speaking over him, “Masked bandits, muggings and assaults, home invasions, murther – ”

“Tom Thomas, please!” cries the King. “You’ll frighten the horses. Now, Mason: you wished to make an answer, for Southeast?”

“Only to assure the court,” says Luys, “we are determined to find, and to stop, this bandit,” but there’s a “Ha!” from someone, the Mooncalfe, prowling there behind the Marquess. “Of course, of course,” the Viscount’s saying, the drink in his hand a banner he’s lifting, “but you must admit, for a month or more,” lowering the glass to point to Luys, “this horse-headed brigand’s eluded your every determination.”

“But we know the outlaw’s name,” says Luys.

The Viscount blinks. “You do,” he says.

“Marfisa, sir. Your sister. That once was Axe, to your Handle.”

The glass droops, forgotten. “You are mistaken, sir,” says the Viscount, his voice gone hoarse. “I have no sister.” A deep breath, gathering himself. “A woman did fill that office once, it’s true, but she turned her back on us all. I gave her the cash myself to board a bus, to anywhere. Points east.” A smile, for the crowd. “She always wished to see the Apple Courts.”

“I have fought her before, Excellency,” says Luys. “Blade or bat, I know her arm.”

“You are mistaken!” roars the Viscount, and there in his free hand the flash of a long-bladed dagger, but a bellow from the King, “Enough!” on his feet now. “Put up, Agravante!”

The crowd drawn back from them both, the Viscount, blade in one hand, his drink the other, Luys, half-crouched, his both hands up and empty.

“We are the Court of Roses,” says the King, his blue eye and his brown both coldly furious. “We speak with one voice. We act toward one purpose! We lift this city up, and with it, all of us!” One hand sweeping up to point, “Mason!” he booms. “You will convey our displeasure to the Duchess. Axehandle!” Swept back, the Viscount agog, “You will speak with your sister.”

“Majesty,” says the Viscount, “if you mean this bandit, who only preys across the river, in Southeast – ”

“You will speak, to your sister,” says the King. “Are we understood?”

“Majesty,” says the Viscount, with a nod. The King pushes past, out into the crowd that parts before him, and the woman in the purple gown follows him out of the high wide room, into the hall beyond. The Marquess all in grey nods curtly at something said by the Mooncalfe at her side, the Soames leans over, arm about the shoulders of the short wide knight, his bald head ruddy. The Viscount turns to Luys, smiling now, though his face is pale. “Did I not tell you?” he says. “You did do fine.” Hoisting his glass to drain it off with a clink. “But one word of advice,” he says, leaning close. “Learn to read the room. An invaluable skill, if one is to continue playing at this level.” And off he goes with a lurch, through the dispersing crowd.

Table of Contents

“Take care” – the Safety of the Space – this is Their plan –

“Take care,” says the woman in the mirror, and he lifts the razor from his lathered cheek. “I realize,” he says, “you people get a lot of mileage out of pretending you never have time for the niceties?” Dipping the razor in foam-swirled water. “Whatever you’re up to being too important. But, I mean, really – a closed bathroom door. Is nothing sacred?”

A shrug of her pearly shoulders. “Your majesty is alone, here.” Her voice rich, her lips painted brown, her large eyes smiling. “Well,” says Lymond, tilting his chin, “I’m headed down to a crowded audience in a minute. Make it quick.”

“This briefing is a courtesy,” she says, hands clasped behind her back. “You are advised of an operation currently underway in your city, to secure an item of paramount importance to global security; you’re assured that every effort will be made to secure said item with the minimum necessary disruption.”

Lymond takes up a towel to blot scraps of lather from his face. “If minimum disruption’s risen to the level of informing the mark, I’d guess a couple strands of haywire’ve already popped loose.” Leaning back against the sink, folding his arms, his dressing gown printed with antique travel postcards.

“Our agent in the field abruptly resigned. We’ve had to adjust our approach.”

“And, presto: you’ve got a false flag, to drape over any further cock-ups. Neat.” Clapping his hands, a hollow pop in these close quarters. “Tell me, which corner of the alphabet soup are you? FBI, CIA? DEA? FDA?” Her eyes still smile, her hands still clasped behind her back. “Okay,” he says. “All right. I at least get to know what the item is. Courtesy surely extends so far?”

“A verse,” she says. “Of Antethesis.”

He looks off to one side, sucks his teeth, “That,” he says, “explains a thing or two. Calls another couple into question, but there you go. Who has it.”

Those smiling eyes, those clasped hands.

“Who’s got the verse,” says Lymond. And then, “Is it Jo?” She looks down. “Jo Gallowglas?” Looks up, all trace of her smile gone. “Not too hard to guess,” he says. “That disruption damn well better be minimal, Agent Whoever-you-are – ”

“How do they not smell it on you?” she asks, and he draws back at that, blinking his one eye blue, his one eye brown. “The rust,” she says.

“Living, here, as we do,” he says, “we’re all brushed by mortality. It lingers, in the nose.”

“Some more than others, perhaps,” she says.

“I think you think you’re threatening me.”

“Call as many of them to you as you might,” and she sighs, “open the door as you will. Send them off to wherever you must. You know as well as we do that all you are depends on us. That if we were no more, you would never have been.” Another shrug of those padded shoulders. “We will employ whatever means are necessary to secure the item,” and she turns to open the door.

“Secure,” he says, and she stops, her hand on the knob. “It’s an interesting choice of words – neutralize, eliminate, remove, destroy, though destroy’s hardly euphemistic enough, contain, I suppose, would’ve worked, or sequester, but you went with secure. Interesting.” She isn’t looking back at him there by the sink, but she hasn’t turned the doorknob, either. “You don’t want to get rid of it. You want to use it. You might be worried about it, but it’s not the existential threat you just so thuddingly alluded to. Is it.”

“Tell me, King of Roses.” She turns to him, the door unopened. “Have you ever been to Mars?”

He leans back at that. “No,” he says, “no, can’t say I have.”

“There is a glacier, in the shadows of the Micoud Crater,” and her eyes are smiling again, “far to the north, where summer dawns last forever. The air is terribly thin, but as it warms to the rising sun it stirs, and the dust that covers the ice,” but she stops, she looks away. “Keening isn’t the right word. So thin, so faint, so hard to hear, but sharp enough to cut glass, and a moan so low you feel it in your boots. The songs are never the same, but they are gorgeous, unearthly, unspeakably haunted.” She reaches for the knob again. “The Micoud Crater’s still a very quiet place, you see. Utterly empty. So rest assured, majesty: we have our eye on the long game, we take great care, and we will not be caught off guard.”

“That’s,” says Lymond, “all right, well. I guess I’ve been briefed. Will you,” but she’s opened the door, she’s stepping out, “be joining us,” he says following her into an empty hall, and no one to either side. She’s gone. “Guess not,” he says.

“A cup of coffee. A venti vanilla latte, to be precise.” She looks down through her black-rimmed glasses at her hands, folded one over another in her black-jeaned lap. “I guess,” she says, “she didn’t want to pay. She just didn’t want to, so, for a, a five-dollar cup of coffee, she asked me, she, asked me.” Looking up at the rest of them now. “And she kissed me. And ever since,” she swallows, “I, I saw her, once more, after that. We, um. She was.” Looking down again, forelocks of her black hair tucked behind an ear, a bit of black lace about her throat. “I don’t think I’m ready to talk about that, yet.”

“That’s fine, Petra,” says Anna, but “You saw her again?” says Gloria, perched above them all, on the edge of the stage. “Because I mean I ran into her a couple of times after, but I never – ”

“Yes, thank you, Petra,” says the older woman by Anna, her hand on Anna’s knee. “We certainly mustn’t push anyone, beyond what they’re comfortable with.” Her unkempt hair a grey-dusted red, her bulky overshirt spangled with flowers like old wallpaper. “This must be a safe space for sharing the experiences we’ve had with what we all share.”

“Not all of us,” says Gloria, kicking her bare feet against the brick. Under a cavernous black hoodie her white T-shirt says Kitten Parkour, and in the darkness behind her, the canvases leaned up against one another, and each splashed with a figure leaping twirling spinning from one to the next. “If it’s not safe for all,” the woman by Anna is saying, “it’s not safe at all.”

“She means me,” says Ettie.

Across that circle of a dozen or so sat on folded chairs she’s slouched in hers, long legs stretched out in yellow tights and thick grey leg warmers, a pale blue ski jacket slung behind her. “She never asked me for a thing.”

“So why are you here?” says a woman off to the left, shredded jeans and long dark hair, and Ettie says, “You know, that’s a really good question,” as the woman by Anna leans forward to say, “Why not start with your name.”

“I was here just last,” says Ettie, “week,” a hand to her forehead, sighing, sitting up. “Stephanie Halliwell,” she says. “My sister, Christine, she’s the one who, who should be here.”

Off to the right, a woman in a denim dress says, “You’re strippers, right?”

“Burlesque artists,” says Ettie. “Featured performers. Choreographers and curators, musicians, entrepreneuses. Movie stars. Just saying stripper, chère? Leaves out a bit.”

“But you take off your clothes, for money?” says the woman in the shredded jeans.

“We’re very good at it,” says Ettie.

“How did your sister come to meet her?” says a woman whose hair is strung with dirty rainbow threads.

“We’re putting together a show?” says Ettie. “She’s one of the sponsors. Maybe. They started seeing each other, which isn’t necessarily smart, but it happens, and as long you remember the ultimate point,” she spreads her hands, looking about the circle of them all. “But one night, one morning, really, Chrissie comes home, despondent, and I, I guess that’s when she got asked, or whatever?” They’re all sitting up at that, sitting back, looking away, a nod, a sigh here, a flicker of a smile there, all of them but the one woman, her chair pulled back almost out of the circle, wrapped in a long black coat, and a little grey hat on her head. “Chrissie literally stayed in bed for, like, a week after that. And I figured, I don’t know. It’s a bad breakup. This has happened before. But. But this,” her shoulders rise, a deep breath in and out. “It was like, and I swear, this is what happened: I felt a chill, all over my body, the hair stood up, on the back of my neck,” her hand reaching up, falling away, “and then, and then there was a knock. At our door. And nobody knocks at our door, unless it’s pizza.” Smiles and shrugs and nods, a half-voiced laugh, rippling among them all. “Nobody knows where we live, it’s one of the rules, it’s sacrosanct. But still. Somebody is. And what do you do, when there’s a knock?” Looking about. “You answer it. And, I mean, I knew, who it was. The chill, the shiver, I knew. Even though I knew it was weird to know. And it was like, I thought, maybe, it would be okay, she, she couldn’t come in. If she wasn’t invited. Like a vampire. Like she was a vampire. I could talk to her. I could turn her away, it wouldn’t do any harm, just to open to door. So I did.” Another rise and fall of her shoulders. “And she walked right past me. I didn’t say a word, she just,” and Ettie swallows. “And not, five minutes later. My sister. My twin – since we were born? We have spent every day of our lives together. Twenty-four seven, we, we live together, we work together, add it up, I think, all told, there’s maybe six weeks? Seven? When we weren’t in shouting distance of each other.” Head lowered, eyes closed. “Not even five minutes after I opened the door, they walked out. And I haven’t spoken to my sister in thirteen days.”

“She’s with her,” says Petra, all in black.

“She gets to be with her,” says the woman in the denim dress.

“I want her back,” says Ettie, looking up to Gloria. “You said you’d help me get her back.”

“We’ll talk about that in a minute,” says Gloria. “Anybody else? Want to share?”

They’re milling about the one end of that cavernous space, still close by the ring of chairs, the sunlight falling diffidently from up under the rafters. Ettie stands one hand on the back of her chair looking off toward the stage, where Gloria’s hopped down, she’s talking to the woman in the long black coat, and there’s Marfisa beside them now, in a bulky blue sweatshirt. “I didn’t mean anything, by that,” says someone, and Ettie shakes her head, looks away, the woman stood beside her, in the denim dress. “I’ve seen you dance – that bit you did, with the Batwoman, and the Joker?”

“Alice,” says Ettie. “Batwoman and Alice. And Prince. Yeah, that got us a C and D, but the C and D got us a post on Boing Boing? So it worked out okay.”

“Cool,” says the woman in the denim dress, her thick dark hair cut short. “Bobbi,” she says, and a sideways shrug.

“Enchanté,” says Ettie, and then, “How did you get into all this?” Over there, silver buttons flash as the woman in the long black coat turns, scoffing at something Gloria’s said. “I used to work at Mary’s,” says Bobbi.

“Oh,” says Ettie, but then her attention snaps back, “oh,” she says.

“Yeah,” says Bobbi. “Anyway, she was there, the night of the fire.”

“I,” says Ettie. “Wow. And she, and you,” but Gloria’s calling, “Ettie, hey,” waving her over, and “I should, ah,” says Ettie, and Bobbi nods. Shrugs. “Next time,” she says.

“Do you know Anne? Anne Thorpe?” Gloria says, as Ettie approaches. The woman in the long black coat holds out a hand and Ettie clasps it, after a moment. “Should I?” she says.

“I don’t really need to be known,” says Thorpe, with a single firm pump of her hand. “Only read. You’re Étienne Limoges? One half of the scandalous Sœurs Limoges?”

“Oh!” says Ettie, brightening. “You write about music, you’re a music critic! For Anodyne!”

“For anyone who’ll pay,” says Thorpe.

“Anne,” says Gloria, grinning broadly, “is writing a story about her.”

“I’m looking into it,” says Thorpe, as “Story?” says Ettie, looking from Thorpe to Gloria, to Marfisa behind them, leaned back against the stage, and a nod of that white-haired head for Ettie.

“Ms. Ysabel Perry, scion of the Acme Parking fortune,” says Thorpe, “has announced an initiative to stop, or at least delay, the destruction of the Lovejay Ramp, which they’re doing for the whole Old Town rejuvenation, the Brewery Blocks, the Pearl District, all that. Save the Lovejoy, or something. She could use a little pizzazz in her PR.”

A brittle look crosses Ettie’s face, that does not smash into a scowl or a snarl as she turns to Gloria. “This is it?” she says. “This is your plan?” To Marfisa. “To help each other? To be useful?” To Thorpe. “You’re gonna write a goddamn puff piece?”

“Hear her out,” Gloria’s saying, but Thorpe says, “She might want a story about her conservation efforts. I’m after the story about,” and a tossed-off wave of her hand, “this.”

“This,” says Ettie, “what this, what are you – ”

“All of this!” says Thorpe, a bit too loud. “This whole, all of you. There’s a story here. I want it.” Resettling the little grey hat on her head. “I don’t have the faintest idea yet what I’m going to do with it, mind. But I’m going to meet her this afternoon, at her apartment. I understand your sister’s staying there?” And then, as Ettie’s looking from her to Gloria, to Marfisa, and back, “I thought you might like to tag along, as my assistant. Which, you won’t have to do any assisting. Strictly an unpaid internship.” Thorpe chuckles. “A tissue-thin ruse, to get you in the door. See what happens.”

Ettie blinks. Marfisa’s smiling. “See?” Gloria’s saying. “Told you we’d cook something up.”

“Okay,” says Ettie, to Thorpe, “but aren’t you scared? That she’ll ask her magic question, or whatever?”

“Maybe,” says Thorpe. “Are you?”

“It’s been a while,” he says, leaned back against the white-tiled wall.

“It’s only been a couple of weeks, Phil,” she says, sat back against a thick wooden leg of the enormous butcher’s block. “Actually, I think it’s been two weeks exactly.”

“No, I mean,” he says. “Since we did that.” His great beard brushing his chest, his bare shoulders hatched with curls of dark hair. “It doesn’t have to be a thing.”

She sighs, heavily, “Of course it’s a thing.” Her shoulders, her upper arms, her back and her breasts thicketed with tattoos, calligraphic vines and branches, leaves and flowers, and creeping crawling peering within so many animals and little birds. “You think you can just, wait, figure out how I feel about it, so you can maybe ease it into some equilibrium that slopes whichever way you feel about it.” She leans over, reaching for a discarded thermal shirt, her undone jeans slopping about her hips. “Saying it’s not a thing is about the most useless thing you could say.”

“I don’t know,” he says. Closing his eyes. “How I feel.”

“I thought,” she says, wrestling her way into the shirt, “you were ready to talk.”

He’s pulled something from a pocket of the dark grey windbreaker sprawled on the floor beside him, a pair of sunglasses, the lenses small and round and purple. “I am talking,” he says, as he unfolds them.

“And I thought you quit,” she says, getting to her feet.

“I did,” he says, looking up at her buttoning her jeans, fastening her belt. “I can’t do what I did. I can’t hear myself think, anymore,” and then he looks down, and lifts the sunglasses to hook the spindly arms about his ears. “It’s quiet, but it’s so quiet,” he says, leaning forward, elbows on his upraised knees. “I’m useless, to them.” She’s leaned back against the butcher’s block, arms folded. “So I quit,” he says, looking up, the glass green over his eyes. “But now they think he’s dead and gone. My friend, who it turned out wasn’t my friend. The one I left on the bridge. But he isn’t gone. If he were gone, we couldn’t know his name.”

“Charley,” she says. “Charlock.”

“So they’re wrong,” he says. “He isn’t gone. So,” and he sighs. “So. I don’t know if that,” a wave of his hand, “was something we should’ve, I should’ve, you need the, I need to, leave you the space, you need, to, to,” but “Phil,” she’s saying, “Phil. Phil. If I need space, trust me. I’ll take it.” Turning about, her back to him, a scrape as she takes up something from the butcher’s block. “So you’re gonna go, is that it? Look for this guy, that isn’t dead? See you when I see you?” It’s a broad-bladed cleaver she’s picked up, handle braced against her palm.

Mr. Keightlinger’s frowning. “No,” he says, “no,” as he drags a black T-shirt to him across the floor, “I know where he is,” he says. “I’ve always known where he is.”

Table of Contents

Gloved in pinkened Mail – a Kept eye – Asymmetry –

Gloved in pinkened mail the metal slipping scrape against porcelain smear of a stain she shifts she grabs the pipe there bracing grunt and push back slap and groan his hands her hips her jeans about her knees his knees her belt a-flopping jangle keys or change in a pocket ringing snort and slap and slap again and “shit” she says and “there – like that – you” head hung low her hair quite short and spiky black the apron slung about her neck hung loose the ties undone her arms are folding pushing back against the bulk of him plowing groaning “skotosch” he says, or something like it, “hwikaz, witting” tossing his head that beard of his jutting “sulnthaz!” he roars, “Suntchazi!” jerking hammering clenching squeezing shaking her head she’s “no” she’s “not” she’s “dammit, dammit” as she slaps the slaps the white-tiled blood-smeared wall she’s hunching back against he shakes his shaggy head his brown hair whipping free of his loosening ponytail stuttering working a stilling slap and hitch and “don’t” she blurts as he’s leaning back his undone head eyes closed his mouth a-gawp his body rocking with the force of her shoves back again and again and her bare hand slapping “shibal” she spits and “shibal!” and he opens his eyes, seize and slam and meaty slap she coughs or sobs a grunt her breath a hiccup caught a tremor shivering shake her knees her hips her mail-gloved hand about the pipe and her pealing cry.

Across the stretch of concrete gleaming under fluorescent lights those boxes against the far wall, regular banker’s boxes white and brown stacked four and five high in mostly regular columns, and set up before them a folding table and a high-backed black desk chair. Jo’s tugging, pulling one of the boxes from the top of a stack, tipping it forward and down, up on her toes to get her fingers in the handles on either side before pulling it free, the weight of it a sudden swoop that swings her about with a grunt, heaving it up to brace against her belly as she hauls it to the table. Her oversized sweatshirt blue, and it says Brigadoon! across the front of it, and off that way the click and tap of footsteps breaking into a rush, “My lady!” cries Luys, hastening down the length of the garage, but she’s already dropped the box by the table, she’s dropping herself in the chair with a squeak and a sigh from the vinyl cushion. “There are those,” says Luys, slowing, “who should help you with, those,” even as she’s throwing back the lid of the box.

“You look nice,” she says, lifting a handful of photos to her lap.

“The audience, at noon today,” he says, smoothing the front of his deep brown blazer, his shirt striped brown and cream.

“Yeah,” she says, flipping one by one through the photos, plucking one from the handful, tossing it to the table, a silvery image of two women holding a large umbrella up over their heads and a third, all in black, to one side. “You got it covered, right?”

“I wish you would reconsider, my lady.”

“I told you,” she says, “if you’re gonna, I mean, my liege. It’s a less, confusing, way to, I mean, I looked it up.”

“My liege,” says Luys. “It would be best for all if you were to attend.”

“Mason,” she says. “You’ll do fine. You’re my lieutenant, you speak for me. Everybody says so.” Flipping another photo over, and another. “The Vice Duke,” she says, “Duke of Vice.” And then, her grin folding itself away, “That didn’t, that, came out wrong.”

“There will be questions.”

“So answer ’em. If you can. If you can’t,” and she shrugs.

“There will be decisions, to be made.”

“So make them! God damn, Luys,” she slaps the photos down on the table, “you know this shit. Better than I do. If you can’t make the call,” and she throws up her hands. “I am good for one thing, in all this. One. With the mask, and the sword. He needs me for that, well, he knows where to find me.”

He looks down. She starts rifling through the photos, spreading them over the top of the table. After a moment, he says, “As my liege wishes.”

“Damn straight,” says Jo.

White apron streaked with red, the clean long slender knife in one hand, the other in a bulky mail glove, links of it pinkly slicked. She wrestles the leg about, skin of it yellow, mottled with brown bruises, deftly slices the flesh, then flops the bulk of it over, continuing that slice around above the trotter. Sets the knife aside to take up a small bone saw, which she fits in the cut, and begins to hack through the bone with quick squeaking strokes. Her black hair spiky short, and frilled about the collar of her white thermal shirt a thicket of black ink, leaves and branches, the beak of a bird. The bone cracks apart, and she tugs the trotter loose, sets it aside, looks up to see him there across the butcher’s block, plain black T-shirt, dark grey warm-up jacket, his bushy beard the color of rich mahogany, his hair tied back in a club of a ponytail, a pair of small round sunglasses perched on his nose, the lenses greenly purple.

“Phil,” says Ellen. And then, “You shouldn’t be here.”

“Story of us,” he says. “For what it’s worth, I’m ready.”

She sets the bone saw aside, clink.

“You said, come back. When I’m ready,” he says. “To talk.”

“Let me finish this,” she says, picking up the knife.

She’s leaned half the front seat back, not quite supine, she’s laid back wrapped in a pale blue ski jacket, white blanket over her lap. The rearview mirror’s skewed to look back and up at a long low building painted white and widely trimmed in green, and all the windows dark in the low morning light but the top storey, the third storey, where yellow lamps shine behind white curtains, and the rooftop garden beside it strung with little lights ablaze, and a woman standing there, her black hair short, wrapped in a filmy white gown, smoking a cigarette. Someone’s tapping on the passenger window.

She sits up, then reaches over to wind the window down an inch or two, peers up through the gap at the woman leaning down out there, sheepskin coat, palely blued cloud of hair. “Hey,” says Marfisa. “Stef. May we speak?”

She pops the lock, and Marfisa pulls the door open, her hair lighting up golden white as she climbs in, choking up on a baseball bat to pull it in beside her as she settles on the passenger side of the seat. Something flops in her lap, a rubbery empty horse’s head, the bulging dark eyes, the limp snout. “Keeping an eye on them?” she says, stooping to look back and up through the driver’s side window, the long low building across the street, white and trimmed in green, and all the windows lining the two storeys dark. “Not much going on.”

Ettie leans back, out of the way, “Look,” she says, pointing, “up there, look,” and Marfisa leans further, over her, awkwardly twisting to look up and out through the skewed rearview mirror. There’s the building, long and low, and there’s the third storey, lit up against the deepening dawn, and two figures in the garden now, another woman, yellow hair severely straight, an embrace, a kiss.

“Well,” says Marfisa, sitting back on her side of the car. “That is a clever trick.”

“I didn’t,” says Ettie, “it’s just, the mirror. Could be any mirror, for all I know.”

“Or only the mirrors of old automobiles, perhaps,” says Marfisa, stroking the white leatherette of the dash. “This is a formidable machine.”

“Got us to North Dakota and back. Twice,” says Ettie. “But you didn’t drop in to compliment our car.”

“I was visiting, with friends,” says Marfisa, “and happened by – but I do want to speak with you, about the gallery. They’d – we’d – like it, if you were to come back.”

Ettie looks away, up into the mirror, “It’s like I told Gloria,” she says. “You talk too much. You meet, and you talk about your feelings, and you argue and you yell and then you have a meeting about the yelling, and I just, I don’t have the,” she closes her eyes. “Patience,” she says.

“You’d rather watch?” says Marfisa, and Ettie opens her eyes, glaring up at her. Marfisa smiles, but it’s wistful, too weak to reach her eyes. “Do you know who she is, that you are watching? That woman, with your sister?” Leaning over again, looking up into the mirror. “She is her one true love. The queen, of her world.” Sitting up, leaning back. Ettie looking down, away. “Just as she is of Gloria’s,” says Marfisa. “And Anna’s. And of mine, as well.” She opens the passenger door abruptly, shifts the bat, propped out against the sidewalk, but stops, sitting there, and both feet still in the car. “We can all help each other,” she says. “Help her.”

Ettie’s eyes have closed, again. “By talking some more, I bet.”

“There might even be some yelling,” says Marifisa. “But come, this morning. For tea, or coffee, if nothing else. But what we have to talk about, today, I think we will all find – useful.”

She climbs out, steps away, off up the street. Ettie shakes her head. After a moment, she leans way over, reaches out, manages to snag the door. Pulls it shut.

Snip snip, the wee silver scissors in her hand, snip, and bit by bit short black curls tremble and fall. Snip. She pinches a wayward sprig, twists them together between thumb and forefinger, tugging aside, scissor-blades brought close to goosefleshed skin, snip. Holding the tuft up before her lips, she puffs, they fly away, she leans in close to blow again, clearing the strays, and that brown belly shivers, and those thighs, “That tickles,” says Ysabel, annoyed.

Chrissie blows once more, a giggled flutter, “But I’ve got your attention.”

Ysabel looks away from the contact sheet she’s holding, glossy in the harshly immediate light of the bedside lamp. “What are you doing down there? You’d better be keeping it even.”

“I wouldn’t dream of messing up perfection,” says Chrissie. Naked, and curled on her side, her knees up on the pillows. “But I could,” combing the trim little thatch with her fingertips, “denude you, if you’d like?”

“Is that what you’d like?” says Ysabel, circling with a fat red marker one of the images on the sheet, a column shadowed under a bridge. “Perfection, that you wouldn’t mar, but you’d raze to the ground. As it were.”

“Only if you want.” Chrissie pillows her cheek on Ysabel’s thigh, and just the lightest of touches for the furl of lip below that thatch, and Ysabel shivers again, but shifts, her foot, her knee, her legs apart. Her filmy gown undone, splayed open, and her breasts and belly bare. “The fashion,” she says, “is to go without a frame, is that it? These days?”

“For us,” says Chrissie, fingers lazily circling, “it’s more of a uniform? No shirt, no pubes, no service,” and she snorts up an awkward giggle.

“You aren’t the funny one,” says Ysabel. A squeak of the marker circling another image, a scribbled bird. “Remember that.”

“I know,” says Chrissie, and a sigh. “I know.”

“You’ve no tattoos,” says Ysabel. “Or piercings. Aren’t those part of the uniform, as such?”

“Our ears are pierced,” says Chrissie. “But we did that when we were twelve. That’s part of our thing, though. It’s in the name? Sœuers Limoges. Flawless,” her fingers, pale, “porcelain,” stroking the olived shadows about the navel before her, “skin.”

“But what if you wanted a tattoo,” says Ysabel, setting the contact sheet aside, capping the marker.

“I don’t.”

“But if you did.”

“It would be,” says Chrissie, and then another sigh. “The mistake too many people make,” she says. “It shouldn’t be, just a mark here, a mark there, whatever. Willy-nilly. They need to be, the body, the whole, the whole effect, needs to be considered. And we would,” she says, “it’s just, simpler? Not to.” Her hand on Ysabel’s hip, now. “On you, I mean,” she says. “Something bold, but a single color, a pattern, all the way around,” a gesture, a circle, “geometric, but asymmetrical.” Looking back up the warmly lamplit length of her, that hand settling once more by those short black curls. “Definitely, for you, asymmetry.”

“But I don’t want a tattoo,” says Ysabel. Sitting up on her elbows, shrugging her gown back up on her shoulders, “Hold still,” she says, and “What are you,” says Chrissie, as Ysabel pops the cap off the fat red marker. “Hold still,” she says again, leaning over.

“Ysabel,” says Chrissie, “what are you drawing?”

“If you struggle, or laugh,” says Ysabel, but then she jerks up, holding the marker away, “if you do that again,” she says, “I’ll definitely mess it up,” and Chrissie quivering with stifled giggles lifts her hand away, stretching away along Ysabel’s outstretched leg, a stilling sigh, but then as Ysabel’s leaning down again a fresh shudder, a laugh blown out through her nose, her firmly smiling lips, her eyes clamped shut, “Are you quite through?” says Ysabel, marker still held high, and Chrissie nods quick and tight. “A deep breath in,” says Ysabel, “let it out, and hold still.” She leans over, and sets to with the marker.

“I’m so,” says Chrissie, “happy, that you asked me. To come back.”

“Are you.”

“And if you, asked her. I’m sure. She’d say yes.”

Ysabel looks up at that, at Chrissie’s yellow hair, her eyelids shut, still bluely shadowed, her dreaming smile. “Is that what this is about,” she says, and leans down again, to draw a careful curve.

“What,” says Chrissie, still smiling.

“You’ve shared men with her,” and a stroke of the marker, and another, “but she’s never shared a woman, with you.”

“That, that’s not, no,” she says, and Ysabel lifts the marker away again, “not at all,” says Chrissie, her arm about Ysabel’s leg.

“But it is true,” says Ysabel, leaning down again with the marker.

“It’s, the,” Chrissie says, “the nature of the, industry, the uniform,” and she laughs again, briefly, “Hold still,” says Ysabel, “we’re both,” says Chrissie, “comfortable with,” and she sighs, opens her eyes. The marker’s paused again. “There’s never been a woman before.”

“I find that hard to believe,” says Ysabel, stroking, daubing.

“If you asked her,” says Chrissie, “I know. She’d say yes,” and a squeeze, a kiss pressed to Ysabel’s knee. “Because you are.”

“But why should I,” says Ysabel, lifting the marker away. “I have you.” Lying back. “There,” she says. “Willy-nil, and unconsidered, but rather a bit symmetrical? If I do say so myself.”

Sketched in red on Chrissie’s flank, just below her breast, an exaggerated lip-print, a pout of a kiss. “I see,” says Chrissie, and a long and languid stretch. “So now you’re marked,” says Ysabel. “You’re mine.” She sets the marker aside and lifts a leg up and over Chrissie’s yellow head, shifting her hips as Chrissie reaches around, “Like that,” says Chrissie, and a long, slow lick, “was ever in doubt,” and Ysabel shivers.

Some time later, Chrissie says, faintly, but quite distinct, “What time is it?” Alone in that wide white bed. The lamp snuffed now, and the room gone dark. Ysabel lets the curtain fall from her hand, steps back from the window. “It’s tomorrow,” she says.

Chrissie sits up on her elbows, opening her eyes quite wide, a quick shake of her head as if dashing something off. “How long have I been awake?” she says.

“Come,” says Ysabel, taking up her gown from the foot of the bed. “Let’s go watch the sunrise. It’s going to be a beautiful day.”

Table of Contents

the Hat in his Hand

The hat, the hat he takes in his hand, stretches it out and turns it over, and then hiked up on his toes leaned up against the woven metal cheek he perches as high as he can that hat atop the giant face. It’s a pink meshback cap, the hat, and the front and bill of it hashed with pink-and-black camouflage, and when he lets go it slides down the massive brow and tumbles from the bulbous metal nose to his feet. “Fine,” he says, and scuffs a kick at it, “fine!” Staggering back from that giant, empty-eyed face. Stadium gates loom behind it, a great sign atop them that says Jeld-Wen Field, and the marquee beneath it, Portland Timbers vs. LA Galaxy, Saturday April 21, 7:30 kickoff, and then a dim round clockface pinked by streetlight, hands pointed at a quarter of three, or thereabouts. The starless sky above a black gone vaguely brown by those lights of the city still shining.

He snatches up a swollen garbage bag bouncing off his stumbled steps away across the plaza, swinging out as he turns to look back across the street, the great white wall of the building there rounding the corner as if it’s turning its back, dotted with small anonymous windows, some here and there plugged with the boxy grilles of air conditioners, but most of them empty, even the glass gone, and all of them dark, unlit. An orange trash slide depending from a second-storey window, feeding into a hulking brown dumpster, ReBuilding Center, says the sign hung from it, DeConstruction Services. He throws up his hand, middle finger raised and waved at that wall, those windows, that dumpster, “Fuck you!” he roars. “Theodofucker!” The faint buzz of streetlights, a fan running somewhere, or maybe the wash of traffic, blocks away.

Lurching across the intersection, the one street curling away from the stadium, the arc of rails set in the pavement, he trips over the curb into a train stop, and shoves his hand in the garbage bag as it twists about, untwists itself, pulling out a handful of clothing that he lets drop, one by one, a pair of tights, one long sock, a T-shirt, a corduroy skirt. Draping a beige bra over a green junction box. His fingers glitter with silver rings, a snake’s head, an ankh, an eagle in flight, his black jeans ripped at the knees, his black T-shirt that says Decisive Action by Western States, his dark hair dangled from his head hung low. He drops more clothing in his wake to the sidewalk, the rails, the pavement, more socks, more T-shirts, a loose-knit shrug, some complex contraption of ribbons and hooks and panels of satin and lace. Between him and the empty street now an aisle of young trees freshly planted, newly leafed, and he hangs more clothing from branches as he goes, a pink fishnet stocking, a pair of boxers printed with cavorting cats, a crumpled crinoline skirt, a gauzy blouse, until he sticks his hand in the garbage bag and rummages around and comes up with nothing, nothing left at all.

He leaves the empty bag at the corner.

A couple of low steps. Leaning way over bracing a hand he sits him down, wincing. Two stolid wooden doors behind him, signs hung there, No Smoking, No Vaping, No Solicitation. He shivers, folds his arms about himself. Leans against the base of the column there, to one side of the steps. Closes his eyes. The column, slender, rising up and up past a grimy, shadowed lintel to a curled Ionic capital. There are letters carved in the lintel, over the doorway there, but whatever they might say can’t be made out in the darkness.

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