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“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.”

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