“Hold still.” Danica dipped the rag back into the cup of charcoal. “Close your eyes and tip your face up, like you’re pointing at something with your chin.”

Cassie tried to do as instructed, but the smell of charcoal irritated her nose and she struggled not to sneeze. “How do you stand this?”

“One gets used to it.” She dabbed at a missed spot of bare flesh. “There. Now let’s do your hands.”

The hands were easier but Cassie had a question. “Won’t this all come off when I sweat?”

“It’ll get smeared around. But if you don’t have to run or fight, you should be okay now that the sun has gone down and it’s cooler.”

When she was finished, Danica motioned Cassie to her feet and appraised her critically. “I wish you’d let me do your hair.”

Cassie picked up the length of black cloth she would be using as a cloak. “That’s what this is for.” She draped it over herself. “What do you think?”

“You look like the Grim Reaper.” At Cassie’s scowl of irritation, she added, “But no one will see you out there, that’s for sure.” She sighed. “I wish I was going. No offense, but this place kind of sucks. Not the medical care, which Danny and I appreciate, but everything else, you know.”

“Well, usually the food isn’t so completely awful,” Cassie said. “The Pharms had our foragers blocked in, so Sandra mixed together whatever she could find.”

“I was thinking more of how stuffy this place is.”

At that moment, Danny walked in, returning from a trip to the toilet. “This place could use some proper windows,” he agreed, picking up the thread of conversation. “That’s why we like our loft. It was built before people had air conditioning. All the windows are in the right places to let the breeze blow through and cool things off.”

“Let’s go home tonight,” Danica said. “I’ll get better faster with fresh air.”

Danny kissed her forehead. “Be patient, love. We need to follow the doctor’s orders.”

While the twins nuzzled each other in amicable disagreement, Cassie went to meet Julilla in the lobby where a group was assembling to pay a visit to the Thespians. Cassie tried not to smirk at the sight of Mundo, dressed in black and with his face painted like the rest of them.

Alex watched the gathering delegation, obviously annoyed. Being put in charge of the hotel appeared to be an honor, but everyone knew it was Mundo’s way of keeping him from taking an unauthorized group to attack the north side Obit hangouts.

“Are we all here?” Mundo looked around. Satisfied that everyone was accounted for, he gave Alex his final instructions. Then he reiterated the plan everyone had already committed to memory, and by pairs they slipped into the darkness.

In spite of the hot stillness of the summer night, Cassie kept her cloak pulled over her head and wrapped around her body. She tried to make no noise as she followed Julilla through the shadows, but in the dim light of moon and stars, it was easy to overlook wires, trash, and fallen power lines. Each time she stumbled, she cringed at the sound of her shoes skidding on dirt and small stones. She wished she could turn on her flashlight so she could see properly, but Mundo’s instructions had been clear: no lights unless absolutely necessary. And so Cassie made her way cautiously and tried not to think of what she might be stepping on as she splashed through puddles, slipped on slimy objects, and trod soft, squishy things underfoot.

Sometimes she thought she heard footsteps following, but the sounds stopped whenever she did, resuming later in maddening fashion, while never drawing any closer. The nails of stray dogs clattered on concrete and somewhere a cat hissed. Voices whispered from doorways, soft curses from children too drunk or too lazy to follow up with a threat, and weak pleas for food. “Got some bread, sister? I’ll do anything.”

It was with relief that she and Julilla arrived at the stage door and gave the coded knock. The privilege of using the private entrance was a recent one granted by Elissa to her closest allies, and no one knew quite what to expect. The door opened a crack, spilling dim yellow light into the darkness. An eye peered out. So did the muzzle of a gun.

Julilla took a breath and repeated the quote they had been given. “’Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, grapple unto thy soul with hoops of steel.’”

The gun lowered and the door opened wider. “Who is it?”

“Julilla Walker and Cassie Thompson. Regents.”

A flashlight played across both girls’ faces. Satisfied, the guard motioned them inside. “Your leader is already here. Damn, it’s been a weird night.”

Cassie gazed at him skeptically. Given that he was dressed like Harlequin, but with bright green lipstick, dreadlocks, and a top hat, it was hard to imagine what level of oddity would constitute “weird” in his world.

Julilla was even less impressed. “Where’s our group?”

The guard waved a yellow-gloved hand in the direction of a hallway full of trash. “All the way to the end, then turn left at the eye.”

“At the what?” Cassie asked.

Julilla rested a hand on the gun at her hip. “You better not be bullshitting us, freak.”

The guard sneered. “You see somewhere else they might be? Go on, if you’ve got a better idea.”

“He’s right.” Cassie tugged at Julilla’s sleeve. “There’s not anywhere else.”

“You listen to death-girl,” the guard told Julilla. “She knows.” He smiled at Cassie. “Nice costume, by the way.”

Cassie thanked him, but as soon as she and Julilla were in the claustrophobic hallway, she removed her cloak and attempted to wipe the charcoal off her face.

Julilla played her flashlight over the graffitied walls, damp with water damage from leaking pipes in the upper reaches of the building. Stacks of broken furniture and equipment amplified the sense that they were boxed in with nowhere to go but forward. As the dim light of the guard station receded behind them with no answering light ahead, the girls grew nervous. Then Julilla’s light flashed off a red glowing object at the end of the hall, enormous and glittering in the darkness. As they drew nearer, they saw it was an eye, made from shattered red and yellow traffic reflectors, embedded in a wall hung with black curtains. The eye’s giant pupil stared out, eliciting a small shiver from Cassie and an annoyed jerk of Julilla’s chin. “He said left, right?”

“Right. Left.”

“Make up your mind.”

Cassie pointed. “That way.”

The next hall was shorter and led to a broad open room full of stage scenery, props, and a half-destroyed sofa where two girls in gray dresses and white face paint looked up from playing cards by the light of a single candle. The taller one pointed wordlessly to a maze of plush red curtains, behind which were the dim echoes of voices.

Julilla and Cassie pushed their way through the curtains and emerged as if by magic into a clear area that called to mind a pre-Telo living room. A fake Persian rug held pride of place, with chintz sofas and wing chairs arranged for visiting. Plywood walls covered in striped wallpaper held haphazardly-painted portraits of haughty ancestors, and a mirror reflected the flames of candles arranged on the mantel of the phony fireplace. In the center of the coffee table was a silver tea service, and a girl in a French maid outfit was pouring amber liquid into cups.

Mundo looked up from the sofa at the girls’ approach, and Elissa, clad for summer comfort in the light linen dress of an Egyptian queen, waved for her two attendants to quit fanning her. In one of the wing chairs, a young man in tights and velvet picked at a plumed hat, refusing to meet anyone’s eyes.

Cassie remembered her manners and curtsied to Elissa, murmuring the appropriate “Your Excellencies.” She jerked Julilla’s arm to make her do the same.

Elissa motioned for them to rise and indicated they could sit wherever they liked. “We are pleased to see you again, Cassandra and Julilla. We trust you had no difficulties?” She glanced at the maid. “Offer our guests refreshment, Fiona.”

The maid curtsied to Cassie and Julilla and handed them each a cup. Cassie took a sip of hers and found it contained straight whiskey.

“Mundo was just telling us the distressing news about May,” Elissa went on. “We offer our condolence and complete support.”

“Uh, thanks, Your Excellency,” Julilla said, “But what exactly does that support entail?”

Mundo glared, but before he could say anything, Elissa smiled primly and answered as if the question had been expected. “Your leader and I were negotiating when you arrived and we hope to hear your valuable insight.”

Julilla made as if to speak, but Elissa cut her off. “Before you offer your suggestions, we have news of our own.” She turned to the young man, now shredding his hat as if it were a matter of urgency. “Banquo, please tell our guests what happened on your mission to the Obits.”

Banquo looked at the girls, his eyes dark and haunted. “Something went wrong,” he said. “We were betrayed.”


1 comment:

Alice Audrey said...

It's not at all surprising they were betrayed.

I like the eye. I wondered, for a moment, if May might have made it.