Whatever’s playing on the radio dissolves in distorted feedback, a little Ennio Morricone, a little 3 Mustaphas 3, it mutters to itself. She shifts in the driver’s seat, leaning forward, watching the man in the black suit through the side windows of the SUV. Continuing this exotic kick, murmurs the radio, let’s feast our ears on these East African rhythms from the Lagos Music Salon. He’s stepping off the sidewalk, there by the welter of bicycles, heading across the greening yard toward the pink-painted house, climbing the steps to the cramped front porch, a big man, unkempt brown hair and beard. Empty hands, one of them lifted to knock. She frowns. Cocks her head. Sits up behind the wheel. Yesterday she said her prayers and thank yous, coos the radio, morning heat crowding her room and thighs, and she leans down again, looks out the side window. The man in the black suit’s talking to someone in the doorway. Yesterday the rains were rather heavy, sings the radio, and the man in the black suit yanks his elbow back, leans in to throw a punch.
Her brow quirks.
Her hand yanks open the passenger door feet kick off the seat the floorboard into a shallow dive over the sidewalk tuck and roll to come up running yellow blur foot leaping middle step then hitting porch and barreled through the front door left ajar a pushing leap her running shoe slaps the wall a spring momentum lofting over the bannister tumble a flip over heels over head as one hand pulling flash that lights the hallway steps and clutter through the doorway scuffle black suit pink head feet a-thump the floor her blade a whip swung down and back a half-step lunge “Iona!” and the blade-tip stops dead there, an inch, perhaps, from blinking eye. The man in the black suit’s hauled Chazz around, held tight to meet her thrust. “Do you?” he says, voice rough.
“Your pardon, ma’am, Devil,” says Iona, taking one step back. Her sword still up. “I did not recognize the wizard.”
“Everyone, please,” says Ysabel, down at the other end of the dining table. “There’s no need for swords, or shields.” The others beside and behind her, the little man holding his book to his naked chest, the man in the baggy coveralls, the woman in the robe. “Put up yours as well, mother.”
“What, this?” says the woman at the one end of the sofa, white hair wild about her head, and a little silver paring knife in her hand. “What could I possibly do with such a wee point.”
“Let the Devil go,” says Ysabel, to Mr. Keightlinger. “We’ll hear you out.” But as Chazz leans forward into a step away Mr. Keightlinger tugs him back, tightening his grip full of turtleneck, “Good sir!” cries Chazz, with a choke. “You’ve secured our attention. There is no need!”
“You,” says Mr. Keightlinger, over Chazz’s pink bald head, to Ysabel. “You might have something. You might not. I need to know.”
“What might this something be,” says Ysabel.
“You have it, you’ll know.”
“But what if I don’t?”
He shakes his big brown head. “You won’t want to know.”
“Ridiculous!” cries the woman at the other end of the sofa, her white hair done up in braids. “Mother, please,” says Ysabel. Taking a step toward Mr. Keightlinger, toward Chazz, toward Iona wary in the doorway. “Well,” she says. “It’s you who’ve pressed most firmly for this dilemma. How would you see it resolved.”
“I am aware,” growls Mr. Keightlinger, a flick of his free hand, annoyed, and then, “Your shirt. Take it off.”
She stops, halfway along the length of the dining table. The woman in the gauzy robe lifts a hand, opens her mouth as if to say something. “You address,” says Chazz, “a Queen, sir,” and Mr. Keightlinger shakes him, once, “Your sweater,” he growls, “take off your sweater. I need to see. If you have it.”
“Draw, Chazz,” says the woman on the sofa, “Iona, go on. Cut him down. Someone!”
“Gammer Duenna, you will be still,” says Ysabel, and then, to Mr. Keightlinger, “First, you must let him go.”
“He stays in the room,” says Mr. Keightlinger. “Everyone stays in the room.”
“You’d have an audience.”
“Collateral,” says Mr. Keightlinger, pushing Chazz stumbling into the end of the table, crash, and steps past him, down the table, up to her standing quite still, and “Ma’am!” cries Iona, and a stern “Hold!” from Ysabel. “This will be done in a moment.” Mr. Keightlinger doesn’t so much nod as shrug, and she lifts her sweater up and over her head and off.
“Bra,” says Mr. Keightlinger, but she’s already turned her back to him. “You’ll need to undo it,” she says.
Delicate clasp of it pinched by thick fingers pressing her skin, prodding as satin straps fall away. She holds the cups of it in place. “I have never,” says the woman on the sofa, “in all my days,” but turns away from a look from Ysabel. Those fingers, pressing the base of her neck. “Please,” he says, pushing, turning her about before him as she lets the bra fall to the floor. Looks up, away. In the shadows above, just under the ceiling, styrofoam wigstands and mannequin heads crowd along the picture molding, each of them painted, thick lines and curls in red and black, fixed rictuses of joy, wonder, and delight, and here and there a wicked sneer. Those spatulate fingers twisting, paling her skin, she winces, “Surely,” she says, “by now, you know?”
He stops, fingers along her sternum, index snug in clavicle-notch. His small eyes, reddened, squinted, brown, between snag of hair and snarl of beard. “You killed him,” he says, and takes a step back. “Didn’t you.”
She looks at him, then. “I seem to recall swatting something,” she says.
“His name’s yet known,” says Mr. Keightlinger, backing away. “Should’ve finished the job.” Turning to go, past glaring Chazz, Iona stepping aside. The door slammed shut behind him.
The man in the baggy coveralls is the first to make a move, a sound, coughing, and Ysabel snatches up her sweater, shoves herself into it, “Ma’am?” Iona’s saying. “Did he harm you?”
“Frost and blight,” says one of the women on the sofa, and “Blast and rot,” the other. Chazz mutters, “Why is his heart not here in my hand.”
“Shall we go?” says Iona, holding out a hand. “Home?”
“Yes,” says Ysabel, but then, frowning, “no,” she says. “No.”
It’s dark, up under the rafters. She lifts a paper bag over her head, climbs after it, up a brief ladder bolted to the wall, and crouching out onto planks laid across the joists there, a makeshift floor. Far below a pop and splatter, whoops, shrieks of laughter. On her knees she’s striking match, lighting the fat wick of a small brass lamp, setting the glass chimney in place, the light warming about her, her brown coat, her white-gold shock of hair. She drags the bag over, Powell’s, it says, and reaches in to pull out books, thick paperbacks with worn covers and creased, curled spines, star-spattered nightscapes and otherworldly pastels, fiery starships, lumpen aliens, The Romulan Way, Norstrilia, the titles say, Floating Worlds, in sober type, in colorful, wildly shaped logos, Caravan Stars, Titan, Brightness Falls from the Air. She sets to methodically peeling off price tags, little perforated squares of yellow and red, big white UPC labels. Someone says, “Hey,” and she looks up to see Anna, clinging to the ladder. “C’mon down. The champagne’s – not that bad, actually.”
“Come on down,” roars Gloria, somewhere below, laughter in her words.
“I’m putting these away,” says Marfisa, stacking a couple of books by a low wooden box, The Thurb Revolution, The Sardonyx Net, and “So,” says Anna, leaning an elbow on the floorboards. “This is what an outlaw’s lair looks like.” Tucked up close to the rafters, at the flickering edge of the lamplight, a rumpled sleeping bag, some discarded clothing. Leaned against a truss a wooden baseball bat. “I don’t need much,” says Marfisa, stacking up more books.
“Still,” says Anna, “now you can run out to IKEA, get yourself a shelf. Maybe even a bed.”
“She can,” says Marfisa, her back to Anna, a book in either hand.
“And?” says Anna. “Look, Marfisa. At all we got done, together, in a day.”
The sheepskin collar of that coat rises gently, in a sigh, as she sets the last two books with the others. “You gave a pot of money to, her,” she says. “We went shopping. For clothes.”
“And art supplies,” says Anna. “The computer, the champagne – that spark, in her eyes?” A yelp from below, “Ladies, come on! I’m about to fire this thing up!” Anna smiles. “And, also – the books,” she says.
“And you?” says Marfisa, turning about, sitting herself on the floor. “What did you get, from all of this?”
“It’s not the money, Marfisa. It’s not the stuff. Didn’t you feel it? We can help each other.”
Marfisa snorts. “With what,” she says. “We’re just some God-damned fools who said a wrong thing, once, to, to the wrong damned woman.”
“Here we go!” yells Gloria somewhere below, but Anna, stricken, leans her elbows on those planks, “Don’t say that,” she whispers. “It’s more than that. You know it.” Marfisa looks away. “And more than just us,” says Anna, a little more than a whisper now. “There’s others, out there. Left, lost, in the shadows, when she turned her face away.” Reaching out a hand. “We can help them, too.”
Marfisa shifts, leaning away, over toward the low wooden box, there by her books. “Are you ready, Anna, for an outlaw’s life?” Anna draws back her hand, a pinch of a frown. Marfisa moves something from the top of that box, an empty horse’s head, bulging black eyes, flop of a snout. “When the Glaive and the Guisarme find out what you’ve done,” she says, “and for whom,” as she lifts the lid of the box, and a wash of golden light spills up and out to overwhelm that little brass lamp. Anna, blinking, catches her breath. “You’ll want to take some,” says Marfisa. “Against that day.”
“The money, is nothing,” says Anna, her voice gone husky. “The bank gets its due. And I’ve signed his name before, at his request.”
“Your tracks are covered?”
“I shouldn’t,” says Anna, looking up at Marfisa in all that light. “Not yet.”
“Not yet,” says Marfisa. Darkness falls as she lowers the lid.
“It’s just the Montage leftovers,” she says, leaning back against the counter, sweatpants and a white tank top. Over the stove the microwave’s lit up and roaring. “I thought you were going out with Reg.”
“You could’ve asked, is all,” she says, there by the shelf in an oversized sweatshirt, legs bare. “It’s the principle of the thing.”
The gentle chime of a doorbell, and she tips her head, a gesture of that striking nose, “Is that him?”
She shakes her head, blond hair austerely swaying side to side. “Not yet.”
“Well, I’m not expecting anyone,” she says, as the microwave bleeps, goes dark. She turns to open its door.
Rolling her eyes she heads off out of the kitchen across the open living room, dark wood paneling and grey-green shag that softens her peevish stomps. Again the gentle chime, followed almost immediately by a pounding knock on the door she opens to see Ysabel, in her long white coat, and her scowl brightens into a smile. “Hello, darling,” she says.
Ysabel’s looking past her. “Is she at home?” she says.
Smile sours to pout. “You could’ve just called,” she says, and then, calling out, “Chrissie! It’s for you!”
“Hey,” says Chrissie, stepping out of the kitchen, bowl in one hand, fork in the other. “Are you okay?”
“I’ve had a day,” says Ysabel, looking down, away from Chrissie to Ettie there beside her, and then up and back to Chrissie again. “Come out with me,” she says, all at once. “Tonight,” she says. “Right now.”
“All right,” says Chrissie, after a moment.
Dim pink light shimmers pulsing from the drumbeat somewhere else, close pink-painted walls, dingy white carpeting, a low white rumpled couch. A silver pole in the middle of the room, bolted to floor and ceiling, and she steps around it, black cloak purpled in that light, and Ysabel’s long white coat gone pink and shadowed purple, and the spangles of Chrissie’s black dress softened, dulled, her hand in Ysabel’s, looking about the little room. “So,” she says. “This is Thursday?”
That cloak spreads lifting arms to reach for the hood and “Wait,” says Ysabel. “Don’t.”
“I am her majesty’s to command,” says the Starling, horsely hushed.
“Your,” says Chrissie, almost, a breath of a word, looking from the shadowed wings of the cloak to Ysabel eyeing her sidelong from a step away, letting go her hand. “Go on,” she says, to Chrissie. “Look at her.”
“I,” says Chrissie, “I am.”
“No,” says Ysabel. “Go and look at her.”
A smile creeps over Chrissie’s lips. “All right,” she says, stepping back. “I guess I’m her majesty’s – ”
“Don’t,” says Ysabel, sharply.
And Chrissie says, “All right,” and another step back, and then around and past the pole. Leaning down in her brief black dress to look up, into the shadows under the hood, and a glimmer there, pink light shimmering, caught in crystal, on silver filigree. “Ysabel?” she says, a whisper, bare arm reaching up to jolt back as rustling a cloaked arm lifts a hand to meet hers, there, at the edge of the hood, fingers brushing, grasping, drawing back.
“You’re,” says Chrissie, “you’re her – ”
“No,” says the Starling.
“I’ve but a brother,” says Ysabel.
“Is this some kind of a,” says Chrissie, and then, “how,” she says, stepping back, bump against the pole.
“Smoke, and mirrors,” says the Starling. “Powders and creams.”
“I guess,” says Chrissie, “we know you’re not the funny one,” and the Starling frowns.
“Chrissie, please,” says Ysabel. “Look at her, and tell me. Do you – think, she’s,” and the thrumming drums, the half-heard synthesizer stabs. That pink light, pulsing. “Do you,” says Ysabel, as Chrissie’s fingers interlock with the Starling’s, the two of them breathless watching her, the Queen. “Do you want her,” says Ysabel.
The Starling closes her eyes. Chrissie, swallowing, lifts her head, a nod, or possibly a sigh.
Two residential streets, a simple intersection, the pavement of it painted in a great circle, yellows and whites, a sunflower faded by weather and traffic, opening under harshly blue-white streetlights. Houses sit comfortably at three of the corners, windows lit here and there against the fallen night, and at three of the corners there by the sidewalks little kiosks built of scrap lumber and windfall, painted in primary colors dimmed with age. He’s there by the sign that says Central Square, a bulletin board beneath it papered with notecards and flyers and photos, lost dog, Yamaha keytar cheap, web design made easy, paleo prepped 4 you. A beard, a mustache thick about his lips, dark hair lankly brushing the shoulders of his warmup jacket, blue and grey. Out in the intersection, Jessie in her puffy pink and orange parka, yellow hair struck colorless in the close bright light. They’re both looking over the fourth of those four corners, where a new house rises up, sheets of plywood cut around what will one day be doors and windows, paper sheathing wrapped about, yellow and white, and spars and beams of a second storey and a third reaching up, raw lumber pale against the dark night sky.
“There was a gate,” she says. “A red gate, and little lights, strung from the trees. There were more trees.”
“The Bedroom Spared,” he says. “The Second Breakfast Nook. The Singing Room and the Smoking Porch. The Heartstone.”
“All the,” she says, “rugs, everywhere you went there were rugs on top of rugs.”
“We had a Rug Day,” he says. “You had to bring something for the floor to get in. Leo brought a strip of carpet from the airport.”
“Leo,” she says, look over at him on the sidewalk, his hands in his pockets. “John,” she says, but then, “no. Michael. Michael John Lake.”
“Luke,” he says, turning away. Heading back down the sidewalk, the cars parked alongside, to a boxy dark sedan. He opens a door and leans in, wrestling with the stuff crammed into the back of it.
She’s frowning as he comes back toward her, a roll of sleeping bag in one hand, a wad of blankets tucked under an arm. “Let’s go,” he says, stepping up onto the curb before the unbuilt house.
“I, uh, Luke,” she says, hurrying after him, “we shouldn’t,” up shaky steps onto a narrow plywood porch. “It’s all right,” he’s saying, as he steps through the empty hole of the front doorway, “I doubt they’ve installed an alarm system yet.”
Inside the darkness thick, abruptly shaped by skeletons of walls, enfilades of two-by-fours limned faintly by the streetlight. “What if someone sees us,” says Jessie, hushed.
“No one saw us,” he says. Over there serrated angles, a couple of stringers hung from ceiling to floor out in the middle of what will be a room, and planks laid atop each deckled edge, a makeshift staircase. Creaking up he does. “Shit,” says Jessie, following after, careful steps in the middle of each board. “We don’t have to stay here,” she says, arms out for balance, the drop to either side.
“I won’t spend another night in that car,” he says, up there somewhere, rustle and thump. He’s tossed the sleeping bag up another floor and he’s stuffing the blankets up after. “The cash,” she’s saying, stepping away from the edge. “We don’t have to save it anymore.” He’s jumped up grabbing the floor above, feet kicking for purchase against a lumber strut. “Little help,” he grunts. She steps up, hands on the seat of his jeans, pushing, “There’s a motel up on Powell,” she says. “Let’s go get a damn room. Sleep in a bed.”
He’s reaching down, and grabs the hand that she holds up. “No,” he says. “We have a plan. We’re sticking to our plan. We’re getting the apartment.” He braces himself to pull, but she’s standing still, “The rent,” she says. “Without a job, there’s no way – ”
“We go on as we mean to go on,” he says.
“But,” she says, and “Do you trust me,” he says.
“Do you believe me,” he says, resettling his grip, and she nods. “Then we go on,” he says, and pulls her up.
Out past the unroofed back of the house restless, lightless trees, stirred by the hissing rush of wind. The starless sky above brushed with light from the city below, and off that way, far off, towering buildings lifted, lit up, and rising among them warning lights winking about the towers of idle cranes. “Look at that,” he murmurs, low and close, there by her ear. “How do you hold hands around something like that.”
“We’re gonna freeze up here,” she says.
“No,” he says. “I’m almost back to myself. Soon,” he says. “Soon.” And then, “Just,” he says, “tell me.”
She turns a little, in his arms, to look at him. “I need to sleep,” she says. “We have to get up stupid early, so nobody sees us sneaking out of – ”
“No one will see us,” he says. “Tell me. Tell me her name.”
And Jessie says, “Isadora.”
“Sariel,” written by John Zorn and Pat Metheny, ©2013 Metheny Group Productions. “Ankara Sundays,” written by Somi, copyright holder unknown. The Romulan Way, written by Diane Duane and Peter Morwood, ©1987 Paramount Pictures. Norstilia, written by Cordwainer Smith, ©1975 Genevieve Linebarger. Floating Worlds, written by Cecilia Holland, ©1975. Caravan Stars, written by Abby Tinker, ©1983. Titan, written by John Varley, ©1979. Brightness Falls from the Air, written by James Tiptree, Jr. ©1985. The Thurb Revolution, written by Alexei Panshin, ©1968. The Sardonyx Net, written by Elizabeth A. Lynn, ©1981.