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“You’re waiting for something” – the Opposite of hiding – Years, or a Couple of months – Stripped bare –

“You’re waiting for something,” says Kerr.

“Yeah,” says Becker. “Breakfast.”

“It’ll come, it’ll come,” says Kerr. His elbows on the blue-checked tablecloth, his chin in his hand. “Take off your hat, stay awhile.” Gold watch heavy about his wrist, dark hair slicked straight back. Becker takes off his trilby, bends down to tuck it under his chair. Sits up, one arm hooked over the back of it, fingers laced together in his lap. Still in his heavy raincoat, unzipped over a soft flannel shirt, a plaid of indigos and old reds. “And I have to ask myself,” says Kerr, “why you didn’t go to hang it up,” looking over at the wall of coat hooks weighted with coats and jackets and hats and scarves. “Is it you’re prone to absent-mindedness?”

“Maybe I just didn’t want to get up,” says Becker.

“Maybe you just didn’t want to deal with all that.” Kerr’s looking again at the wall of coats, at the people crowded beneath in yet more raingear, sitting on the benches, standing as much out of the way as they can, waiting for tables. “Keep everything close, contained. Ready to go at a moment’s notice. One foot always out the door.”

“You’re reading a lot into how I took off my hat,” says Becker.

“You can read a lot by how much somebody does almost anything,” says Kerr, as a waiter sidles up to the table, sets a cup of coffee by Kerr, an empty cup and a little glass pot of steeping tea by Becker. “Trick is whether it’s by, or into.” Kerr pours cream into his coffee, scoops up some packets of sugar. “You’re still hourly, aren’t you. What is it, fifteen? Sixteen?” He rips open three or four at once and empties them into his cup.

“I get production bonuses,” says Becker.

“Sure you do,” says Kerr, stirring his coffee. “And I bet you hit those numbers every time, or you know the reason why. Still.” A sip. “Are those something you negotiated, or just what they’d give anybody had your job? You’re waiting, for something. Husbanding yourself. Are you a vegetarian, Becker?”

“What?” says Becker. “No, I just, I don’t like meat, for breakfast.”

“That’s what she said,” says Kerr, and at that Becker snorts, leans over, quaking with silent laughter. “And see?” says Kerr. “You can laugh at my appalling jokes. Very realistically, I might add.”

“It wasn’t, it wasn’t the joke,” says Becker. “It was the timing.”

“It’s never anything but the timing,” says Kerr, leaning over, looking up, hand out to grip the hand of a man in a grey sweatshirt blazoned with a yellow U and O. “Morning, Rudy,” says Kerr.

“David,” says the man in the sweatshirt. “Out for a bit of Black Friday bargain hunting?” A scruff of grey beard about his chin too carefully trimmed to be forgotten stubble, his white hair cropped close about the back of his head.

“If any of you people was smart,” says Kerr, “you’d take a pass on this whole mess, wait until what is it, Epiphany, do the gift exchanging then. Take advantage of all those post-holiday sales. Rudy, this is Arnold Becker.” Rudy turns and Becker works his hand up from his lap, offers it for a quick grip and shake. “Becker’s doing some work for the campaign, on our, the big survey.”

“Oh,” says Rudy. “Numbers man, eh?”

“Ah, sort of?” says Becker. “I’m in a, supervisory capacity – ”

“Becker’s a generalist,” says Kerr.

“Good to meet you,” says Rudy, turning back to Kerr. “Listen, Rosie’s been trying to set up a thing. Could you maybe give her a hand?”

“She’s at home?” says Kerr.

“Wherever she is, she’s got her cell.”

“True that,” says Kerr. “Consider it done.” Leaning over the table as Rudy pushes his way off through the close-set tables toward the wall of coats. “Big supporter of George’s,” he says. “You have any idea how much of the city’s business gets done in this room?”

“What are we doing here,” says Becker, pouring tea into his cup. “You and me.”

“Thought it was obvious,” says Kerr. “This is a job interview.”

Becker sets the teapot down, looks up to meet Kerr’s smiling eyes. “How’m I doing,” he says.

“Not bad,” says Kerr. “Not bad at all.”

“Not one damn thing, it’s another,” she mutters, tugging the string that leads between her wrist and the threadbare little rabbit nosing a chipped and cloudy brick of lucite. Trapped inside the goggly-eyed corpse of a fish, a little mouth lined with sharp and ugly teeth. A gong sounds, the scraping squeak of hinges, “We’re not open yet,” she calls out, hefting the rabbit, careful of the clutter, setting it down behind the counter.

“Horsepuckey,” says the Duke, limping into the shop.

“That’s a new look,” she says, her milked-over eyes fixed on the floor, the edge of the counter. She winds her yellow hair into a knot at the back of her head and slips a knitting needle into the knot. He’s thumping toward her, leaning against a long black spear-haft, the blade of it wavering up there shaped like a leaf, mirror-bright. “She’s gone,” he says. Back there by the doorway Jessie’s waiting in her short grey chauffeur’s jacket, her bright red Keds. “I need to find her,” says the Duke, resting the spear-haft against the counter, hiking himself onto one of the stools, wincing as he settles his leg, rubbing it. “That’s hers,” he says, nodding at the spear. “She has her sword, but that, I gave her in battle. She swore her oath to me on it. It’s through and through hers.”

“She broke her oath,” says the woman behind the counter. “She left it behind.”

He slumps at that, hunching in his tweed jacket. “I have a plan,” he says. “It’s a good plan.”

“She doesn’t trust you,” says Miss Cheney. Turning a typewriter ball over and over in her fingers, running a thumb over its punched-out alphabet. “You don’t trust her. I told you to get rid of that bag.”

“I did,” says the Duke. “I hid it away. It was safe.”

“That’s entirely the opposite of getting rid of it,” says Miss Cheney. “It’s nonsense, Leo. An accident, a byblow. A loose thread bedeviling your hand. Mud in your eye.”

“You’re just saying that,” says the Duke, “because you don’t know where it came from, or who made it.”

“Don’t know,” she says, the typewriter ball clattering like a die from her fingers. “I don’t need that to know,” knocking the spear-haft back to crash to the floor like a felled tree. “She’s in the last place you’ll look,” she says, rubbing the back of her hand.

He rears back, opens his mouth as if to say something, lets it out in a sagging sigh. “Vincent Erne,” he says. “Oh, that’s, that’s not good.”

“Look at you,” says Miss Cheney. “Listen to yourself.” Her words are clipped and harsh but her hands settle tenderly about his and squeeze, gently. “Fear,” she says. “Uncertainty. This is not the Grace I know.”

“What’s going to happen?” he says, and her head tips back at that, her milky eyes staring up and up at the ceiling. “Same old,” she says, distant, distracted, “you’ll carry on,” gathering strength, “as if nothing could possibly change, until one day, everything does.”

“That’s how you lost your hand?” says Jo.

“What?” says Vincent, laying a page limply heavy on the floor with the others.

“The duel.”

“No,” he says. “That had already happened, a long time before.” It’s a centerfold. He tugs it open, smooths it flat. A woman removing a yellow bra, otherwise naked. The neatly trimmed line of her pubic hair like some obscure punctuation mark. “The hand I lost to a guy with these, teeth.”

“Yeah?” says Jo. Sitting away across the wide deep room, back against the mirrors that line the one wall, floor to ceiling. The paper bag on the floor beside her, and her sword in its sheath. “Little guy, right? Lay-lay-lay-loo?”

He dips his hand into the briefcase sagging open beside him, rummages a moment. “That’s it,” he says, climbing to his feet.

“All the naked ladies?” says Jo.

“Quite a few of them, anyway.” Spread out on the floor before him a collage of pinks and peaches, blushing beiges, buttery wet roses, slick oranges lurid with purples and greens. The detail lost in sheens and flares from reflected light, in shadows seeping from the dark far end of the room.

“So, wait, he names you Huntsman, that very night you sleep with the Queen, she gets pregnant, he challenges you to a duel, but you’d already lost your hand a long time before?”

He spares a dark look for her, then turns back to the pages on the floor. “That’s not how it happened at all,” he says. “I’m telling it wrong. These things,” waving his hook over all those pictures, “there’s usually a, a shape to them. A rhythm. Repetition, rhyme – ”

“You deal with a lot of bags full of porn?”

“Can you stop being a smirking middle-schooler for maybe five minutes?” he snaps. “This is not a joke.” She looks down, hands on her upraised knees. “Where’d you first see this,” he says. “Who had it.”

“On the MAX, a couple months ago. After the hunt. Eastside, we were coming back from, well, from where it was we fought the boar.” She leans forward, pushes herself upright. “They came outta nowhere, they, they weren’t real, you know? These men just, popping up, one after another, saying the most, these, just, vile things.” Stepping over to one side of those pages on the floor.

“So you jumped them,” says Vincent.

“So Ysabel could pull the brake. The train wasn’t stopping. They weren’t real, it was – ”

“This is real,” says Vincent.

“Yeah, well,” says Jo. “One of them had it. Bald guy, older guy, trench coat, tie, a salaryman, I don’t know. They’re all white.”


“The – models,” she says, waving at the pages. “They’re all white. The rhythm or whatever.”

“Oh,” says Vincent, with a nod.

“The men weren’t. On the train. I don’t know if that’s part of it. There’s no, well, I guess she’s blonde, and her, up there, with the snake? And there’s a redhead, looking really chilly there in that river, but otherwise they’re all, they’ve all got, dark hair – ” Vincent’s squatting, reaching into the middle of that spread. “This isn’t his,” says Jo. “Is it. Leo’s. He didn’t.” He’s plucked up one of the pages, a woman in a tight orange jacket unzipped lying back her dark hair a thicket, gartered stockings, striped underwear stretched taut about her knees. He lays it next to a centerfold, a woman in only a pair of brown leather boots, chin perched on the post at the foot of a bed, black hair in long straight sheets about her face. “The makeup,” he says, “the hair, it’s hard to say, but I think it’s the same girl. Only they’re years apart.”

“It wasn’t that long ago the whole retro seventies thing was in, you, you think that’s really from the seventies.”

“Or a couple months ago,” says Vincent, still squatting.

“Her, too.” She’s pointing at a thickly lipsticked mouth a sneer at an anonymous white-gloved hand aiming a tattoo gun. “The chin. I mean, it’s not, it’s not – ”

“No,” says Vincent.

“Her eyes are blue.”

“The cheeks are wrong.”

“I mean, sort of, but – ”

“It’s not her,” says Vincent.

“Looking at it, it’s eerie,” says Jo. “Which vu is this, huh?”

“You need to go,” says Vincent abruptly, shuffling together a row of pages, stacking them up against his hook.

“I need to,” says Jo. “What about, what’s – what was he doing with this?”

“I don’t know,” says Vincent, stuffing pages in the briefcase, ruffling up another handful. “And unless you want to ask him yourself, you have to go. It’s no great mystery, figuring out you’d come here.”

“I need help,” says Jo.

“Yes,” he says. “You do.”

“You’ve been here, before, you’re, you’re the only person I know who’s – ”

“I can’t help you, girl. I told you, I tried to tell you every step of the way, get out, get away, walk away from this shit, it ain’t worth it. You shouldn’t have fucked with this.”

“Yeah,” says Jo, “well, you’re such an inspirational example there.”

“Which is my problem. Wait here,” he says, headed out of the room. “I’ll be right back.”

Jo spins there on her heel, throwing her hands up, fingers curling into fists. Catches sight of herself in the mirrors, all in black, black jeans, black boots, the collar of her baggy black shirt sprung up on one side. She flattens it, turns away, hands to her face, a deep and ragged breath drawn in, blown out. Fingers lowering, eyes shut, her bottom lip in her teeth. “Fuck,” she says, more a sigh than a word. She stoops to gather up more glossy pages.

When Vincent comes back he has her coat draped over his prosthetic and he’s holding something out to her, bills folded and folded again, tucked between his fingers. “What’s that,” she says, snapping the briefcase shut.

“Refund,” he says. “November. Go on, take it.”

“That’s more than two hundred bucks,” she says.

“No it isn’t,” he says. “Count it out if you don’t believe me.” She takes the money and tucks it away. “Now get that thing,” he says, hook clacking at the paper bag over by the mirrors as he holds out her coat, “get both those damn things outta here.”

Jo takes her coat, pulls it on. Heads over to pick up the bag. “Where,” she says. “How? What’s next, what do I do?”

“I’d tell you to throw them both away and buy a one-way ticket to Paducah if I thought it’d do any good. Hey. Hey, girl. Look at me.” Jo looks up as she slips her sword between the handles of the briefcase. “Where are you,” says Vincent Erne.


“Where are you, girl.”

“Right here,” says Jo.

“What’s around you? What’s coming at you?”

“I don’t know,” she says. “Every damn thing.”

“Well figure it out,” says Vincent. “See what’s coming, decide what you’re gonna do about it, then do it. Okay?”

“What am I gonna do?” says Jo, picking up the bag and the briefcase. “I’m gonna walk out on the street with nothing but two hundred bucks and a sword, that’s what I’m gonna fucking do.”

“Well,” says Vincent, “empires have been built with less. Now go on, go. Get out of here.”

“It’s all your fault,” says the Queen over the water splashing into the tub. She sets a copper tray down on the white tiled dais, careful of the mixing bowl. “If you hadn’t interfered, with poor Anna,” she says, reaching up and back to undo clips that let fall coiled locks of long black hair, “we wouldn’t have had to let her go. Come here.” In that mixing bowl a viscous puddle the color of milk in the light of a late afternoon, its surface sheened with bubbles like lace. “My bra?”

Ysabel in a short white robe, her feet bare, a wisp of gold threaded about one ankle, a simple golden ring on the little toe of her other foot, clicking as she walks across that grimy white-tiled floor. The Queen’s hauled all her dark hair over one shoulder. Ysabel unhooks the clasp of her black bra, letting it sag from the Queen’s shoulders, down her arms. The Queen drops it on a neatly folded stack of black clothing there on the dais by one of the tub’s claw feet. “Off with the robe,” she says, leaning on the rim of the tub, shutting off the faucets. The rustle of terrycloth loud in the echoing silence. The Queen dips a hand in the faintly steaming water, “Blood,” she says, and then, “Sit.” Pointing to the dais.

Naked, Ysabel perches on the edge of it there at the head of the tub, the pipes to drain and faucets a dingy chrome frame behind her. “Your foot,” says the Queen, kneeling before her. Undoing the thread of gold and laying it on the dais. “We must be completely bare,” she says, taking Ysabel’s other foot in her lap. “Shorn of all – adornment – ” Wincing as she tugs the ring from the toe. “You are a beautiful girl,” she says, sitting back on her heels.

“Of course you’d say that.”

“Doesn’t make it any less the truth. Sit up straight.” A flash there as Ysabel does so, a bit of clear crystal at the end of a golden pin piercing her navel. “I can,” says Ysabel, but the Queen knocks her hand away, “No,” she says, sharply. Leaning over Ysabel’s lap, pinching the pin open. “You must understand. I am not angry with you.” Dropping the pin to the dais by the ring and the thin gold chain. “But we are far past the point of any games.” Her elbows on Ysabel’s knees, Ysabel leaning back, hands planted on the tile behind her. “There’s nothing anymore between us,” says the Queen.

“All right,” says Ysabel.

“Tell me who it was,” says the Queen, and Ysabel’s brow pinches. “He is no Prince,” says the Queen. “He’ll never be King. But I must know who it was.”

“I don’t know what you,” Ysabel starts to say, and “I’m not,” says the Queen, quickly. “I’m not angry. You needn’t worry about that, sweetheart.” Stroking Ysabel’s cheek. “Whoever he is, he has nothing to fear from me. But I would know his name.” Sitting back, black curls rustling as she tips her head, trying to catch Ysabel’s downcast eye. “It isn’t Southeast, or we’d’ve swept his ash from the Throne by now. It isn’t the Mooncalfe; I’m certain it happened before he took you up. It couldn’t possibly have been the Chariot. Roland would never – would he? Did he?”

Ysabel manages just to say, “No one.”

“Of course there was!” snaps the Queen. Her hands on Ysabel’s knees. “It’s the only answer that makes any sense of it all. You’ve been wed.” Ysabel turns away, black hair falling like a curtain over her shoulder. “Without a King, to guide you, to’ve done it properly, the turning’s had a hard time passing between us.” Catching Ysabel’s chin, turning her face to look her in the eye again. “Can it be you didn’t even realize? Think, child.”

Ysabel yanks her head back from the Queen’s grasp. “I told you what I saw,” she says, cold and clear. “When I ate the tongue.”

“Don’t be absurd,” says the Queen. “We have allowed you your dalliances, but – ”

“There were wild queens,” says Ysabel, bitter and low. “In the mountains. That never needed kings to do what they might do.”

The Queen pushes back, gets to her feet, a creak in her knee. “Old wives’ tales,” she says, “which you must hope are true. Get in the tub.”

Ysabel’s green eyes wide she says, “Mother?”

“Get in the tub, child,” says the Queen through her teeth. “You’re no fool. Every drop of medhu brought into this house for two months’ time’s gone foul at my touch. If you can’t turn their offering to dust, then all is lost.” Holding out her hand.

“I can’t,” says Ysabel.

“You can,” says the Queen. “You must. They’ll think it came from me and go back, satisfied. I’ll still be Queen. It will buy the time we need for the King to come back.”

“I don’t know how,” says Ysabel, taking the Queen’s hand.

“You do,” says the Queen, steadying Ysabel as she lifts a foot to step into the tub. “In your bones you do.” Ysabel winces as she lowers herself into the steaming water. “Sit back.” The water’s quite deep, lapping her shoulders, her upturned knees low islands. Her black hair floating. The Queen holds up that bowl and tips it, and the milky stuff within rolls slowly to the edge of it and gathers there, gorging itself into a great drop that sags then falls with a plop to the water between Ysabel’s knees, blooming there into airy clouds that slowly begin to sink as the last of it unspools a thread from bowl-rim to tub, a pattering chain, a last few clinging drops.

“Mother,” says Ysabel.

“I’m here, child,” says the Queen, setting the empty bowl on the dais, by a stack of fresh white towels.

“Mother, I’m frightened.”

“Hush,” says the Queen, leaning over the rim of the tub.

“What if I’m broken?” says Ysabel, as the Queen lays a hand on her shoulder, her other hand brushing a clinging lock of hair from Ysabel’s forehead. “Don’t talk nonsense,” says the Queen.

“But,” says Ysabel.

“Hush,” says the Queen, pushing Ysabel’s head under the water. Holding her there. Leaning her weight over the water, locking her arms, lip bitten as Ysabel thrashes, bucking, her arms, a foot kicked up, shredding those milky clouds.

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