A shell of glossy white paint flecking from the doorframe Becker’s leaning against. He picks at it crackling under his nails. The door opens slightly, Guthrie peering around the edge. Becker clears his throat. Guthrie jumps. “Sorry,” says Becker.
“Fuck,” says Guthrie, opening the door. His black T-shirt says Mai Pastede Hed in white letters. A guitar strums through cheap speakers from somewhere further in. I would like another way to breathe, sings a girl over the guitar. Keep my eyes wide open in my sleep. ’Cause when I’m underwater, you keep me under glass…
“You haven’t showed up in almost a week,” says Becker.
“To work,” says Guthrie.
“You’re here about work.”
“Yeah,” says Becker.
“You getting paid for this? Come to my place and wake me up for, for uh, to what exactly?”
“You haven’t showed up. You quit? Did you find something else?
“Because, I mean, you don’t show up at Burger King, the manager doesn’t come to your place and ask, you know, what’s up, where you been.” Becker says “Manager at Burger King isn’t your friend,” as Guthrie’s saying “They just fire your ass. And Tartt never would have showed up here or anything.”
“Tartt wasn’t your friend either. You want me to fire you? Did you find something else? Because I’m seriously covering your ass on this.”
“I didn’t ask you to – ”
“Dammit, Guthrie!” Becker runs a hand through what little of his hair is left. “Just shut up a minute, okay?”
“What is it,” says Guthrie.
Becker’s looking up at the flaking ceiling. “You remember those two guys. That you, that you wanted to talk to me about. That one time. And we never, I mean, the two guys,” but Guthrie’s shaking his head. “We did,” he’s saying. “You forgot.”
“Forgot,” says Becker. “Did one of them have a mustache? Long, and, uh, grey, and – ”
“No,” says Guthrie. A pale hand a sleeve the color of oatmeal snakes around his waist. “No mustache.” A confetti-colored cap over two eyes bright and blue smiling as she stretches up bare feet tiptoed to lick at Guthrie’s ear. “Come back,” she says, and kisses his cheek. “Come back.” Her legs bare beneath the ragged hem of her sweater. Over the cheap speakers a woman’s singing I’m in a backless dress in a pastel ward that’s shining, think I want you still, but it may be pills at work. She sees Becker then, and her blue eyes corner under pinched brows. Still pressed against Guthrie she lifts an arm across the doorway two fingers pointing to just so touch his nose. Becker jolts back.
“You shouldn’t be here,” she says.
“The hell?” says Becker, rubbing his nose.
“Didn’t anyone tell you? You’ll spoil it all!” She steps out into the hallway.
“Um,” says Guthrie, “hey – ”
“We have to get him where he’s supposed to be,” she says.
“I mean,” says Guthrie, “um, pants – ”
“No time,” she snaps, and she stomps a foot clomp ringing from the heel of a worn workboot, laces undone, tongue lolling, spinning about shimmying her hips hands smoothing a fall of orange pleats, a heavy corduroy skirt. “And you’re already wearing pants!” She stomps her other foot flatly flop a dirty green and yellow running shoe. “We have to go now.” And turning again she clomp-flops down the hall.
“What,” says Becker, staring after her, “just happened?”
The woman in the pink T-shirt beams up at them through her small round glasses. “I can’t say, Highness. A tremendous honor.”
“Yes,” says Ysabel. “And you are..?”
“Nell,” she says, bowing her head slightly, “the Soames. Welcome, lady.”
“And this is,” says Ysabel, turning as Jo says, “Excuse me,” and walks away across the basement toward the coffee urn, there on the table in the back.
“That was Jo,” says Ysabel behind her. “My Gallowglas.”
The man standing by the coffee urn straightens, lifting a paper cup. His hair’s a shock of pink and orange. “Hey,” says Jo. “It’s Ray, right?” His paper cup stops halfway between the table and his quirked mouth under goggling blue eyes. “I’d like to think,” he says, “I’d’ve noticed if I’d seen you here before.”
“No, from the Zoobomb. Roland’s friend.”
“Friend?” he says, and his cup salutes her. “That’s, that’s good. About time he got one of those.”
“He said you were a friend of his.”
“Did he.” Ray lifts the cup, lowers it again. His smile’s gone apologetic. “I know him. Roland doesn’t have any friends.”
Jo picks up a cup of her own. “He also said you weren’t like him.”
“Well, I do have a couple of friends…” His cup floats back towards his lips again. “Hey, Sproat,” he says.
“Hey,” says the little man with the extraordinarily large nose, pouring himself a cup of coffee.
“I mean,” says Jo, “you’re not, you’re not one of his people. You’re not from wherever it is they’re from.”
“The West Hills?”
“Ha. You’re like me, is what I mean.”
He cocks an eyebrow over one of those bulging eyes. “I hope I’d’ve noticed that, too.”
“I know why I’m here, is what I’m getting at,” says Jo, twisting the spigot on the urn, filling her cup. “Because of her. Why’re you here?”
“Her?” says Ray. Ysabel’s stooped to listen to the Soames, who’s ticking points on the palm of her hand. “Really? Huh.” His cup makes it this time. He sips. One of those eyes screws shut and his lips pucker. He fishes in a pocket of his leather jacket, pulling out a green glass bottle with a silver cap. “Is that why you’re being such a dick?”
“What?” says Jo.
“The coffee,” says Ray, “not that it’s any of your business.” He pours a slug of something colorless into his coffee. “Was that too rough? ‘Dick’? If that was too rough – no, that’s weaselly. It was too rough. So I apologize. No ifs.”
“The coffee?” says Jo. “I don’t – ”
“It’s free,” says Ray. “To answer your question. Shitty, but free. And this is free, this meeting, as in speech, as in beer. So again. I’m sorry. But you’re the one who leaped in demanding answers.”
“I didn’t – ”
“You did a lousy job of hiding how badly you wanted me to justify myself.”
“Yeah?” says Jo, her voice gone low and fast and quiet. “Well I got dragged here on her whim with some guy I never met and I don’t know what’s going on and usually, I go places with her, usually, I end up on a horse or getting assaulted or, or I’ve been stabbed, and here you are that I’ve actually met once before, and maybe you come here every night, I don’t fucking know, but maybe you can tell me something so yeah, I’m gonna ask questions.” Her hand a fist on the table by her discarded cup.
“Every month,” says Ray. “I mean, I haven’t. Just twice. But the first Wednesday of every month, Saint Patrick’s under the bridge. We’d better get chairs.” He heads over to a couple of empty chairs in the ring that’s filling up, chairs about them squawking on the linoleum floor as they’re pulled out, pushed back, settled here and there, the men and women taking their seats, coveralls, overalls, dungarees, denim and flannel and chambray, yellow-brown boots and white-wrinkled black boots, meshback caps in their hands. “See, Open Mike,” says Ray, leaning over to murmur in Jo’s ear.
“Open Mike?” says Jo. A long and lanky man in a black T-shirt’s clapping Twice Thomas on the shoulder.
“He’s about to corral everybody, all the stragglers. Usually about twenty, maybe two dozen. Although I should say that when I say twice what I mean is this is my second time here, so I should say more like one and a third or maybe a fifth or so, and you should take all this with a grain of salt. But next…” He leans closer, those eyes bulging over a smile tucked into the corners of his mouth. “What,” says Jo.
“Biscuit’s about to play the piano.”
A man in brown coveralls has lifted the keyboard lid of the baby grand piano and with his left hand plays a low thick chord once, then rapidly one two three, letting that last beat hang in the air a moment before snapping the lid closed and dropping the edge of the quilted dust cover back over it. They’re all standing, Ray too, and after a moment Jo, and they’re humming that chord from the piano, and the Soames standing there by Ysabel still sitting alone of all of them, the Soames throws wide her arms and opens her mouth to sing “Arise,” and they all join in, “Arise, ye workers from your slumbers, arise ye prisoners of want! For reason in revolt now thunders, and at last we end the age of cant!”
“And then they sing!” says Ray in Jo’s ear.
“So comrades, come rally,” they’re singing, “For the struggle carries on! The Internationale unites the world in song!”
“Brothers and sisters,” says the Soames, as the echoes of the last chord of the chorus die away, faintly ringing the strings in the closed-up baby grand. “I call this meeting of the Order of American Mechanicals United, Local Two Three Five, to order.”
“I’m in your practice hall, your dojo, whatever the fuck,” says Jo.
“Where are you, girl?” says Vincent.
Jo’s brow crinkles. “Second floor? Park and Oak? Northwest corner. In, uh, in Southwest, I mean downtown. Which is whatsisname’s. The Count’s. No, wait – it’s open. Unclaimed. Right?” Ysabel eyes closed smiles, her head resting back against the mirror.
“Where are you?” Vincent steps his left foot forward hips and shoulders swiveling head still locked his eyes on Jo. His prosthetic crooked up before him right arm loose at his side, hand canted, sword tilted up, back, away.
“Here?” says Jo, settling her knees, wincing. “Here. Standing here. In front of you.”
“Where’s your feet, girl?”
“Under my shoulders.”
“Where’s your shoulders?”
“Where I left them,” she growls. “Edge-on. To you.”
“Your hands?” he says, but she’s already saying “My left hand’s up and back like a queer-ass dandy pirate to balance a lunge and it itches like a motherfucker. My right hand’s up, wrist in seconde.”
“You’ve been reading,” says Vincent. “Who? What? Naldi? Talhoffer? The Abbé?” His head up, back, his sword twitching.
“I don’t know,” says Jo. “I just got some books from the – ”
“Forget it,” says Vincent, snapping his hook. “Throw ’em away.”
“I left them in Twice Tom’s truck. Probably never see them again.”
“Four lessons, girl! Then practice. I don’t want anything else cluttering your pretty little head.”
“Four,” sneers Jo. “And number one’s I tell you where I am.”
“Number one is knowing where you are, girl.” Vincent steps back, his left foot in line with his right. Lifts his blade to point at her. “Know it in your bones, without doubt, without fumbling for words to describe it. Know where you are. Without that, you’ve got nothing.”
“And I wouldn’t want to walk into a room like that,” says Jo.
Another twist in his Van Dyke. “Lesson two,” he says.
“Another question. Where am I?”
“Then her sister finished us off.”
She stands at the head of the low flight of stairs leading into the room, the folds of her blue-black cloak parted just over a long gown of watery mail marred by shadowy blooms of rust and here and there some broken unsprung links. On her head a plain round metal cap from which her hair does not escape. Shining around her neck a polished silver torc. “Be about it quickly, Sidney, that we might more quickly take our leave.”
“Can’t I take a moment instead, Linesse? To savor this strange new experience?” He looks back and forth along the ragged arc of men and women standing before him, the knife still in his hand, his hand before his face. “I’ve never bearded rabbits in their den.”
“It’s there they are most dangerous,” says Linesse, but he’s stepping further into the room. Jo draws herself up there between Sidney and Ysabel, her eyes wide, her breath shallow. He licks his lips. Nell looks up at Ysabel through her spectacles. Open Mike behind them squeezes his hands into fists but does not lift them.
“Well, Plain Sidney?” says Nell then. “What is her bidding? What would the Cailleach with the likes of us?”
“With you?” says Sidney. “Nothing, with you. You have this once a choice: stand up, fall back. As you like.”
“We stand with the Bride,” says Twice Thomas, there by Open Mike.
“Will you?” Sidney’s laugh’s a snapped-off syllable. “Even though she’s dallied with the Axe, and sullied the gift she’s meant to give the King when he returns? Put down your fists. She’s in no danger. Our mistress doesn’t care what lips she’s kissed, though it pleases me, to use her as our bait. No,” and he moves his hand then, slowly, pointing the hilt of his knife at Jo, “it’s her bulldog we’re about – who’s killed our lady’s boar, who’s made her laugh most cruelly. Who has no place at her sister’s court, and yet.”
Ysabel says, “Dagger – Sidney – ” and with a roar he steps to the right to pass Jo who rushes to block him but his next step’s left, pivoting around her the hilt of his knife swinging to catch the side of Ysabel’s head. Twice Thomas rushes to catch her as Jo yelling grabs Sidney’s cloak hauling him back “You fucking motherfucker” as he’s stumbling bellowing “Gallowglas!” and she slaps a hand on his mailed shoulder. There is a sudden hiss. Jo screams. The tarnished metal ghosted with dew about the hand she jerks away, a ripping sound, the flesh of her palm and fingers red.
Sidney turns, slowly. Twice Thomas on his knees by Ysabel on her side her hands to her face, Open Mike over them both, fists ready. Jo stumbling back falling to the ground cradling her hand. Nell glasses clinking on the tray she hasn’t put down. “It’s not about fighting you, girl,” says Sidney, but he’s looking now at Nell, at the trembling tray. “It’s about making you watch.” And then, to himself, “This farce,” he says. “You all deserve what’s coming.”
Linesse at the head of the stairs shakes her head. “Sidney!” she cries, an admonishment.
He whips his knife around and across a short chopping swing that slams the flat of his blade among those glasses, scattering them, driving the tray from Nell’s hands. A golden glittering cloud explodes around them. His other hand’s aloft, holding a bicycle bell. He thumbs it, twice, chiming sharp and clear. “You all deserve what’s coming!” He pushes his way out of the crowd, up the stairs after the swirl of Linesse’s cloak. The glittering cloud’s collapsing, settling on the tiled floor, the shards of glass, their boots and shoes, on Ysabel a-sprawl, on Thomas’s knees, his sheltering hands. Then the lights go out, and they all begin to holler at once.
“Acetone,” written by Lauren Laverne and Marie du Santiago, copyright holder unknown. “A&E,” written by Alison Goldfrapp and Dougal Wilson, copyright holder unknown. “The Internationale,” written by Eugène Pottier and Pierre De Geyter, in the public domain.