fortune's bitter road
by
david england

The sequel to A Dark, Imperious Hand, this is the fourth episode in the series The Hard Streets of Aphrodite.


Part I

A Dirty Play

 

The air in the office gets very still, the three of us holding in some kind of tableau: the woman laid out on my desk, me standing at the inner doorway with Mel just behind.  She looks at us; we look at her.  Seconds tick by and no one says anything.  Then I decide to break the silence.

“How about we start,” I say with more control than I’m feeling at the moment, “with who you are and how the hell you got into my office?”

The woman laughs.  Not some socialite’s twittering or the socially-acceptable mirth of well-to-do femininity.  Not even like Christiana’s birdsong, but instead a robust, full throated laugh.  Husky and seductive.

“I have not been misinformed, I see,” she replies.  “Your reputation for bluntness appears to be most accurate.”  She pauses.  “You are known for being direct, Mr. Philips, even to the point of rudeness.  I can appreciate that, I think.”  Her velvet voice is soft and soothing, but has a subtle edge to it that trips my sixth-sense something fierce.  I keep my expression blank, however, and give her a good looking-over.

She’s older than Miss Pierce, certainly older than Mel, and well into that period of womanhood I’d call seasoned maturity.  If I had to guess, I’d say she’s younger than me, though with all the carefully-applied makeup it’s hard to be sure.    Still I’d say late thirties by standard reckoning.  Her full lips are painted that blood-red, contrasting with a pale complexion that I’m sure is augmented by powder.  Her eyes are outlined with dark mascara, creating a magnetic effect that draws you into soft, grey-green irises that lie patiently in wait like some kind of carnivorous Venusian flora.

She’s still draped languidly over my desk, her legs not-so-demurely crossed as the slit in her deep crimson dress opens past the knee to expose a good amount of naked thigh.  Long gloves of soft black run to her elbows.  Leaning back, she’s casually braced on one hand as the other grips a slender silver cigarillo-holder that’s maybe a foot long.  A thin curl of smoke spirals slowly from the lit end.

With a smooth and deliberate motion, she brings the near end of the cigarillo-holder to her mouth.  There’s a brief flash of pink as her tongue taps the end of the mouthpiece in the instant before her lips wrap themselves around it.  Her cheeks hollow and orange-red flares brightly from the far tip of the cigarillo.  Those eyes, still patient and still hungry, never leave mine as the hand moves away from her mouth again.  Her lips purse and a cloud of smoke streams out, floats upward.

I hear Mel make an indignant noise behind me.  Keeping my gaze on the woman, I hold my left hand out, just off my hip, in a “stand down” motion.  Last thing I need is two dames getting into it in the middle of my office before I have a chance to figure out what the hell is going on.

“My questions stand,” I reply, my tone firm.  “I’d like to start hearing some answers.”  Then, almost as an afterthought I add:  “And, if you would, please get your ass off my desk.”

Something hard like diamond glints in her eyes, but she nods slowly and shifts her body after a moment.  “You did say ‘please,’ after all,” she observes as she complies with my request.  I don’t know how the simple act of standing can be done seductively, but this woman manages to do exactly that.

One hip cocked, she stands in a statuesque pose.  “All better now?” she asks, almost coyly.

“It’s a start.”  My response is clipped and curt, but I’m hardly in the mood to care.  Now that she’s off my desk, I shift my attention to the coat rack in the back corner and make my way over to it, shedding my overcoat and fedora as I move past the woman.  These get hung on their respective hooks and I turn back to the deceptively silent scene of two women eyeing one another: one cool and detached, the other very much neither of those things.  I catch Mel’s attention and motion her to her usual chair off to the side with a jerk of my head.  The woman I wave to the remaining chair in front of my desk.

“Now,” I say blandly as I plant my hindquarters in my own chair, “have a seat and tell me who you are.  You’ve gone through some trouble to get in here and obviously have something you’d like me to handle for you.”

The woman smooths her unwrinkled dress and sits just as seductively as she stood.  “Simone,” she answers casually.  “Simone Roberts.  And yes, there is a job I have for you.”  She gives me a half-smile, like she’s amused herself with an old joke.  “One which I rather think you’ll be quite interested in, Mr. Phillips.”

Her self-assurance on that score pings my sixth-sense again, but I shake it off for the moment.  Mel’s expression makes her opinion of our guest plain to see.  I can’t say I disagree, but a paying client isn’t something I’m going to throw out into the street either.  Especially one who’s timing just might give me some extra breathing-room regarding Mel’s case.

So I keep my own expression placid.  “We’ll see.  Now, Mrs. Roberts--”

“Oh, it’s ‘Miss’,” she interrupts smoothly.  Brings her cigarillo holder to her mouth, inhales, then exhales a billowing cloud.  “Most definitely ‘Miss’.”

I ignore the flirtation and lean back in my chair.  “Okay then, MIss Roberts, what exactly is it you have for me?”

“A lover,” she  begins, before pausing.  “Or rather, an ex-lover.”  Her eyes still have that seductive hue, now with a glint of ironic fatalism.  “It would appear that my...services...are no longer desired.”

I give a tiny nod of acknowledgement.  This is familiar territory, at least.  I’ve had a fair amount of experience in my many years as a private snoop helping jilted lovers get information to hold over their former partners’ heads.  And not just ladies, mind you.  While the spurned gigolo, in my assessment, tends to be less vindictive than his female counterpart, that is by no means always the case.

“Why don’t you give me an outline of your situation, Miss Roberts,” I suggest.  “And then we’ll see if I am able to help you in some way.”

“I am quite certain that you can,” she responds calmly.  Again, her confidence on that score bothers me for some reason, but I can’t put my finger on it just yet.  I wave one hand toward her in a vague gesture.  She takes another drag on her cigarillo, just as she did before, and I wait for her to begin her little tale.

“My former lover,” she explains with a subtle emphasis on the adjective, “is a man of some means, with the many virtues and vices that tend to come with his station.  Among those vices is his driving need to, shall we say, gamble and to do so for ever-higher stakes.”

Another nod on my part.  Again, familiar territory.  “He has gotten crossways,” I offer.  “And racked up considerable losses, I presume.”  It’s a guess, of course, but a reasonable one considering the thrust of her story to this point.

She surprises me with her reaction, though.  A moment passes as she just looks at me, then it’s another of those laughs, but one far more spontaneous than before: as if she’s actually amused by the thought, rather than simply being a dame playing a role.

“Of course not,” she informs me after her laughter subsides.  “He never loses.”  A knowing, if somewhat mysterious smile now.  “He’s far too careful an operator for that.”

I frown in confusion.  “I’m afraid that I’m not following you, in that event,” I reply.  “How does your lover’s gambling figure into the picture?”

“Ex-lover,” she corrects me.

I wave that off.  “Ex-lover, then.  Doesn’t matter to me one way or the other, you understand.  What I’m looking for here is the meat of your story, Miss Roberts.  And you’re teasing me with garnishings.  I’d ask you to get to the point.”

“I’ve heard that you prefer the direct approach, Mr. Philips,” she comments.  A flick of her eyes toward Mel and then back to me.  “No patience for foreplay?  Always straight to it?”

My patience is really starting to fray, but I bite off a sarcastic rebuttal and keep my consternation from showing.  I look dead at her and speak very clearly.  “I am waiting, Miss Roberts.”

She shows her teeth at that, pristine white dazzling against the deep red of her lipstick.  “Aren’t you the impatient one?” she responds.  “Don’t worry, Mr. Philips.  I can assure you that the prize is worth your while.”

I grunt at that, but otherwise say nothing.  This is something like the third or fourth intimation she’s made in the course of our brief acquaintance that she knows something about me.  Again, something jangles in the back of my mind, less distantly than before, but I continue to ignore it--for now.

Miss Roberts takes my stony silence in stride.  Once more, the mouthpiece of her cigarillo-holder is embraced by those lips, and once more, a cloud of smoke follows as she exhales.  “My former lover,” she begins after another heartbeat, “is, as I said, a gambling man, but one who plays in such a way so as to leave little to actual chance.”

I give her a level stare.  “You’re talking in contradictions,” I state.  “And dancing around the subject.”

“He has, however, perhaps overreached himself this time,” she continues as if I hadn’t spoken.  “The stakes for which he is playing are big--far bigger than he’s ever before attempted.”

“Your lover...ex-lover,” I correct myself at her momentary frown, “doesn’t exactly sound like the type of man who would take someone of your...position...into his confidence on such matters.”  I pause for a moment, allow the unasked question to sit in the silence.  “No offence, Miss Roberts, but if he is as careful a man as you describe, he would hardly reveal such things in pillow talk.”

She laughs again, more lightly and less genuine this time.  “No offense taken, Mr. Philips, I can assure you.  And you are not wrong.”  She returns my level gaze with interest.  “My old lover did not reveal his plans to me, as you rightly guessed.  I found out quite on my own.”

“Why would you do that?” I wonder out loud.  “If he is the kind of man you say, that sort of thing could be...dangerous.”

This time it’s Miss Roberts who says nothing for a time, regarding me quietly.

“Do you find me attractive, Mr. Philips?” she asks finally.

“Excuse me?” I respond, very much caught off-guard by the non sequitur.  “What do you mean by that?”

“Exactly what I asked, Mr. Philips,” she answers calmly.  “It is a straightforward enough question.  You are a man.  A man who likes women, so far as I can tell.”  She gives a tight, knowing smile.  “I can usually nose out the other kind right away.”  She leans back in her chair casually, uncrossing and recrossing one leg over the other.  The slit on her dress slides higher and plenty more of that shapely thigh shows.  It is not an unprovocative sight.  “And I am a woman,” she continues.  “A woman who very much enjoys men.

“So I will ask you once more.  Do you find me attractive?  Do I stimulate you?”  Her pink tongue flicks out, wets those blood-red lips.  “If I told you that this body was yours for the taking, would you accept that offer?  Would you bend me over your desk?  Would you plow my moist, womanly valley with your turgid, manly blade?”

Her talk is starting to get to me--in more ways than one.  In the corner of my vision, I see Mel’s eyes widen and a mixture of reactions flow over her features, but she says nothing.  I shift in my desk chair and try to get somewhat more comfortable. 

“Your point, Miss Roberts?” I reply, as blandly as I can.

“Thank you, Mr. Philips,” she says, a surprising honesty in her voice.  “It is good to know that the bloom has not completely faded from this particular rose.”  Those lips compress into a thin line.  “My point, as you say, is that a woman knows when a man desires her.  And she also knows when he does not.  Call it woman’s intuition, if you wish.  But she knows.”  A pause.  “I knew.”

“Knew what?”

“That he no longer found me of interest.  I’ve grown too long in the tooth.  He likes his playthings young.”  She gives a toss of her head toward Mel.  “Like your lady friend there.  And as being cut off from my rather generous allowance was something of a concern, I decided to go looking for a bit of insurance, shall we say.”

I’m beginning to get the gist of her story by this point.  “And he caught you?”

She shakes her head.  “Not exactly?”

I frown.  “Riddles again, Miss Roberts.  What do you mean by ‘not exactly’?”

“I found something...potentially useful,” she explains.  “A letter, which if read in a particular light, could be highly embarrassing to him at the very least and possibly incriminating at worst.  However, I did not have an opportunity to take this letter with me, so I hid it with the intent to return for it at a more opportune time.”

“Ah,” I say, seeing the point now.  “And then he gave you your walking papers.  Before you could go back for your prize.”

She nods.  “Exactly.  You are as perceptive as they say, Mr. Philips.”  I don’t reply to that.  She continues.  “That is precisely my problem.  He must know the letter to be missing.  He might even suspect me of taking it.  But I cannot get it for myself and without it my leverage is considerably weakened.”

“And what is it you wish me to do?” I ask, knowing, of course, exactly what it is she wants me to do.  This is a dance I’ve been doing for a long time.  It is always best to have a client say the words.  Fewer misunderstandings later, you see.

“I want you to retrieve the letter for me, naturally,” she responds without hesitation.  “I can provide you with the information necessary: where it is and how to get to it.”

“Why not get it yourself?” I push back a little bit.  Not that I want to turn down a job, or the d’argent that comes with it, but I sure as hell want to get the lay of the land.  “Save yourself some cash and the chance you’d get ratted out.”

She smiles.  It isn’t a particularly loving smile.  “My skills are...in other areas,” she replies.  “Ones not pertaining to breaking and entering.  And I have sufficient resources to assure you that your reward would be well worth your while.”

“Fair enough,” I allow.  “But surely, if your ex-lover is someone of considerable means as you say, he would be willing to pay handsomely for this letter’s return and for information regarding the circumstances of its disappearance.  Has this not occurred to you?”

“Of course it has.”

“Then you’ll understand my concern,” I tell her.  “As well as the reason for my next question: who else have you approached about this matter?”

“No one,” she answers simply.

“No one?” I repeat.  “You’ve spoken with no one else about this job?  No one at all?”

“I came directly to you.”

My eyebrows go up at that.  “And why directly to me?” I ask.  My gut is getting persistent, but damn it all if I can figure out what the issue is.  “How would you know that I wouldn’t rat you out the same as any other?”

A ghost of a smile touches those lips.  “Oh, you wouldn’t do that, Mr. Philips,” she answers, way too assuredly.  “I know that.”

“And how, may I ask, would you know that?”  This little pas de deux is really getting on my nerves.  I hide it well, though, and keep my features casual.

She ignores my question.  “My apartments,” she explains, heading off on some tangent from our conversation that I’m totally ignorant of, “are on the Westside.  Very nice.  Cozy.  Good views.”  I wait as she takes another drag on her cigarillo.  “Sometimes he visits me there.  There’s a private entrance in the back with a direct elevator to the penthouse.  No one sees him come or go.”

She pauses.  I say nothing.

“Sometimes, however,” she continues, “he sends for me.  Not to his estate, you understand.  I doubt his wife would care for that.”  A mirthless chuckle.  “In those cases, I’m brought to a house--a small compound, really--that he keeps, well away from the prying eyes of society.  Not all that far from here, as a matter of fact.”

“A private house of assignation,” I observe.

She shakes her head.  “No, it’s more of a hideaway for himself.  The fact that I am brought there is more for his convenience.  It is where he plots and schemes, I think.”

“Oh?” I ask.  “What makes you say that?”

“I’ve only seen certain parts of it, you understand,” she replies.  “Even after these many years.  But I’ve kept my eyes open all that time.  And regardless of how careful one is, or how well-trained one’s staff might be, little things slip from time to time.  And a person can add those little things into bigger things, given enough of them.”

“You snooped.”

“I kept my eyes open, as I said,” she counters.  “A woman never knows when she might need something.  The snooping wasn’t until then end, once I suspected his intentions.”

I wave a hand at her to keep going.

“That particular evening, he was called away from his study.  Now this study is situated next to the suite I occupy while in residence there and it is always locked.  That evening, I heard a servant come into the study and the low murmur of urgent conversation.  Then I heard the two of them leave that room and the door shut.”

“And?”

“And what I did not hear--which I had heard on every other occasion--was the sound of the key being turned in the door lock.  So after the footsteps receded, I stepped into the hall to investigate.  The study door was closed, but not locked.  It was, I felt, something of a sign.”

“So you snooped,” I say again.

She gives a nod.  “I took advantage of a fortuitous opportunity,” she avers.  “One which seemed likely to gain me a point of leverage if my concerns regarding my position proved true.”

“Which I’m assuming was the case.”  I have a great talent for stating the obvious, you know.  But in my line of work, it is often useful to do so.  Sometimes what a person thinks to be obvious turns out to be another thing entirely.  “Your concerns over your position, I mean.”

“Rather soon afterwards, in fact,” she confirms.  “I do suppose he was wanting one last go-round; one last ride on a once-valued mare before putting her out to pasture.”  Those lovely lips compress into a hard, thin line.  “I have been given a fortnight to find new lodgings and vacate my current apartments.”

“Just like that?” I press.  “Nothing else?”

“There was something of a parting gift,” she allows.  “A reasonable sum--severance, one might say--along with a subtle warning.  I can’t say that I cared for the underlying threat, however expected it might have been.”

“And what threat was that, exactly?”

“Oh, nothing was said, you understand.  Not so overtly,” she replies.  “Much, however, was implied.  And quite unmistakably so.”

I say nothing and wait for her to continue.

“It was suggested,” she explains, “that being too open about my past relations, or divulging anything untoward which I might have learned, would be...bad for my continuing health.”  A knowing look.  “Dangerous, as you said.”

“Yet you are here,” I observe, again stating the obvious.  “Which would suggest to me that you are either choosing to disregard those warnings or deem something else to be more important.”

“I am here,” she agrees.  “I am here because that bastard owes me more than a petty severance due a minor retainer.”  Her expression takes on a determined air.  “I’m not some cheap whore to be laid aside simply because his tastes have changed.”

I raise my eyebrows slightly at that.  “No?”

“No,” she answers firmly.  “I’m a very expensive whore; one who knows how to please a man and who deems her skills worthy of respect.”  A slow smile forms on her mouth.  “No less than any other honest tradeswoman.”

Well, I think to myself, that’s certainly a different way of looking at the situation.  Nothing she’s said is out of bounds with regard to my professional ethics, but that nagging sense in my gut is getting very persistent now.

I lean forward and place my hands on my desk.  “Enough dancing around, Miss Roberts,” I tell her.  You’re here to ask me to do a job.  Either give me the details necessary or else take your business elsewhere.”

Her eyes glint.  She’s obviously enjoying her little game.  “Fair enough, Mr. Philips,” she replies calmly.  With a smooth motion, she reaches into the bosom of her dress and removes a folded square of paper.  Holding my gaze with her own, she places the paper on my desk.  “You will find all the information you require here.”

I just look at her, then drop my eyes to the square of paper.  After regarding it for another moment, I reach out to pick it up.  As soon as my fingers touch it, however, my sixth sense starts screaming.

I ignore that for the present and unfold the document.  It proves to be a sketch, along with various addenda providing details.  An address in a not-so-upscale section of town--and, as she mentioned, not all that far away from here.  The sketch shows the general layout of the small compound she had described, noting entrances, gateways, and guard-stations.  A bit more detail is shown for a portion of the interior, presumably those rooms with which she was familiar, the remainder either with vague labels or otherwise blank.  The fireplace in a salon just off her suite is clearly indicated.  A small notation below the sketch informs me that the letter is hidden beneath a partially-loose stone tile at the outer, right-hand corner of the hearth.

I take that all in at a glance, almost by instinct, because that screaming sixth sense has finally jostled those bits and pieces tossing about in the back of my mind into something coherent.  Everything slips into place.

“I have a final question for you, Miss Roberts,” I say evenly.  “And I would appreciate a straight answer.”

“Of course,” she replies.

“Who is this ex-lover of yours, exactly?”  I speak the words, my tone turning up at the end just like any other question, but a grim sense settles inside me because I already know the answer.

She smiles coldly.  “Why, the imperial viceroy, naturally.  His Grace, the Duke of Nouveau Orléans y San Marie.”

Very carefully and very purposefully, I fold the paper again and place it back on the desk where she’d put it.

“I am sorry, Miss Roberts,” I say, holding my gaze level.  “But I cannot take your case.”

Part II

Hell Hath No Fury

 

The carefully-crafted beauty falls from her face like a discarded mask.  What shows beneath makes me damn glad I finally had the good sense to listen to my gut.  The blood-red lips curl into a snarl, her anger showing harsh and bitter.  I’ve seen the like before when I looked in the mirror and I know the feeling well.  It’s a path that’s tempted me more than once over this course of my sad little life, but I’ve wised up enough to know where that road leads and that’s nowhere good.

“And why not?”  She doesn’t quite spit the question at me, but it’s a close thing.  I decide on the cool-and-collected approach.

“My reasons are not really any of your business, Miss Roberts,” I reply carefully.   “I am a private detective and I work in a private capacity.  I choose which cases and which clients to take on, and which to refuse.”  I pause pointedly.  “And I am refusing this particular one.”

“But you hate him,” she counters, insistent.  Her agitation is starting to show and I begin to realize how much my refusal of her case has thrown her off-balance.  “You must hate him after what he did to you, what she did.”  The woman is angry and baffled.  “Of all the people I could possibly turn to for this, you’re the only one I knew wouldn’t double-cross me for a larger payment.”

She’s got that much right, at least.  I’d sooner spit in the man’s face than take money from his hand.  Of course, that wry inner voice says, it wouldn’t be coming from his hand, but that of one of his flunkies--

I shake the thought loose.  No time for that, I tell myself, and turn my attention back to the particular problem of this particular non-client.

“I am sorry to disappoint,” I respond, still keeping things cool and detached.  “But my answer stands.”  My tone stays calm, trying to ward off the worst of her potential reactions, but my words only cause her eyes to narrow into venomous slits.

 “I’d heard the stories about you,” she says.  My eyebrows rise in a silent question, but I keep my mouth shut.  “That you were the worst kind of night-crawler,” she continues, her words sharp and precise in their attack.  “Reveling in the lowest scum of society.  I knew about all of that.  I even thought that it might be helpful to me.  What I hadn’t counted on, however, was you turning out to be a coward as well.”

Now that stings.  You don’t break into a man’s office, try to seduce him into taking a job, and then call him a coward to his face when he turns you down.  Not on his own turf.  And not on this side of town.

There was a time, back when my wounds were still raw and open, back before I’d settled into this sour farce of a life, when words like that in circumstances like this would’ve left the speaker with fewer teeth to bother brushing in the morning, dame or no dame.

But I’m no rash and wounded buck anymore--certainly older, if no wiser--and the presence of a particular young woman sitting off to the side of this office watching the unfolding drama with an intense expression gives me all the reason I need to keep things under control.

So I take a deep breath, tamp down hard on a surging anger, and exhale slowly.  A heartbeat passes.  Then I reply.

“As I said,” I state with a careful emphasis, “my reasons do not matter.  My answer does.”

Miss Roberts ignores me and keeps going as though I hadn’t spoken.  “He’s told me of that whole affair, you know.  Spoken of it rather often, in fact.  How he took your woman and your pride.  How he left you bloodied and screaming on the dueling grounds with a single shot through your shoulder.  How he could have easily killed you with that same single shot, but chose to let you live in the knowledge of your inferiority.”  A poisonous smirk slides across her lips.  “He bears the scar you gave him with pride, your shot--”

“Miss Roberts,” I cut her off before she can say anything else.  “Whatever my past relationship with that bastard may be, it is my business and not yours.  You asked about my services and you have my answer.  Now,” my tone takes on an edge, “take your business elsewhere before I throw your ass out into the street.  Good day.”

Her mouth sags open for a moment, then shuts abruptly with an audible snap.  She stands brusquely, the movement devoid of any hint of the provocative sexuality which had oozed from her body only a short while before.  Hard eyes glare at me as I lean back in my chair and steeple my fingers casually.

“Bastard,” she hisses.  “You’re no better than he is.”  She turns on her heel and marches herself to the inner doorway before I can say anything in response.  I shoot a quick glance at Mel, who’s already rising from her own chair, and give a curt nod that tells her to follow.  The outer door slams shut, then opens again and shuts once more, much more quietly this time.  I’m left alone in my office for a few precious minutes.

First things first, I tell myself, and my eyes immediately go to the folded square of paper Miss Roberts has left on my desk.  Whether this is an intentional act on her part or else an oversight in the midst of her fury, I can’t say.  It doesn’t matter one way or the other.  What does matter--what matters very much, in fact--is the information that paper holds.  And that issue I resolve quickly.

Standing from my chair, I take the paper and unfold it, glancing over the contents one last time before reaching down with one hand to slide my desk drawer open and retrieve my box of matches.  Setting them on the desk, I pull the ashtray towards me and set the partially-folded document in the clay dish.  A sharp flick brings a wooden match flaring to life and in a few seconds the map is a momentary bright flame before it collapses into folds of smoldering ash.  I hear the outer door open and close, and realize that I had only just been quick enough.  A moment later Mel appears at the inner doorway.

“She’s gone, Ni--”  Mel stops short, considers the smoking ashtray for a long moment, then lifts her eyes to mine.  Her face is a blend of puzzlement, concern, and annoyance.  I’m not going to dodge any bullets today, that much is instantly clear.

“Nick,” she says finally.  Her tone is quiet but full of a steadily-growing fire.  “We need to talk.”

“Later,” I reply, meeting her intense gaze only for a moment before turning to reach for my overcoat and fedora, still hanging on their hooks.  Just because I know that I’m not going to be able to dodge these bullets doesn’t mean that I’m not going to try like hell.

“Nick,” she begins again.

“I said later,” I reply curtly, cutting her off.  “I’m going out for a while.  Go ahead and lock up.  Get yourself something to eat if you want.”  I turn back to her.  “We’ll talk when I get back.”

“And when will that be?” she demands, her patience with me obviously beginning to fray badly.

I slip my overcoat on and set the fedora on my head, give the brim a tug.  “I don’t know,” I admit.  “But I will be back, Mel.  You’ll just have to trust me.”  There’s an instant where my shell cracks, before I repair the breach again, and I see Mel’s eyes widen slightly.  “I just need a bit of time here.  I promise you--we’ll talk.”

She says nothing for a moment.  “Today.”  It’s not a question.

I nod.  “Today.”

Mel looks at me, then gives a nod.  “Very well, Nick.  I will lock up.  And we will talk...later.”

“Thank you, Mel.”  I move past my desk to the doorway, but stop when I reach her.  My hand comes up, touches her upper arm, falls away again.

Mel says nothing.  Does nothing.  I turn, step through the vestibule to the outer door and leave the office.

 

# # #

 

I tell myself that I don’t know where I was going.  Hell, I may even believe that if I try real hard.  But as soon as I reach the street-level door and step out onto the walkway, my traitor feet turn and start walking.  I pay no mind to the direction at first, my head still churning with half-formed images evoked by my non-client and her problem that’s not my problem, thank God.  I’m not thinking about the dame, though.  At least not that one.

It’s only after I cover many blocks along the street that fronts my building and make a turn at that corner that I haven’t been by in years that it finally dawns on me where I’ve been heading all this time.  Or perhaps I’d only fooled myself that I hadn’t already known from the time I’d thrown Miss Roberts out of my office.  I grimace, but hunch forward and keep going.  It’s a long walk and I need to clear my head--or that’s what I tell myself anyway.

The day has turned bright and clear--or as bright and clear as a day can get on this planet.  The atmosphere is a lighter-than-usual shade of overcast and there’s just a hint of that ubiquitous dampness in the air that’s the hallmark of Venusian existence.  The arc of the streetway covering, low and close overhead, is oddly quiet, the typical patter of raindrops missing.  This sort of thing happens once in a blue moon.  I shake my head at the phrase: Venus doesn’t have a moon, you idiot, and even if it did, you wouldn’t be able to see it.  I’ve been here long enough, but old habits of speech die a reluctant death, you know.

These facts register as I walk, information noted and then filed away.  I focus on a point that hovers about six feet ahead and maybe six inches above the walkway.  All that while, my brain fumbles about in a surging tide of memory.

Why?  And why now?  There are some churches, I know, which say that all that we do is predetermined, that we’re just wind-up dolls going through the motions of an existence which has already been mapped out, and each of us is destined for heaven or hell, spending on the luck of the draw.  Actors in a play whose script is already written, reading the lines given to us.

There are others, in contrast, who say that each of our lives is connected to every other life in some vast web of being, every one of us impacting the life of everyone else in some large or small way.  Part of me finds this plausible and in a momentary flash I see me and Mel and Miss Roberts and Diego all connected by thin, nearly-invisible strands of spider’s silk.

But most of me thinks that’s all bunk.  Most of me thinks that we get dealt cards and have to play them as best we can.  If you get a crap hand, well, that’s too damn bad.  The universe doesn't care about you or your feelings.  If you want a friend in life, get a dog.

I hate dogs.

At least, that’s what most of me thinks most of the time.  Just now, I’m seeing those fine threads very clearly, puppet strings gathered in some unseen hand of someone or something.  It’s not an image I care for exactly.

The stone and glass fronts of buildings slide past in my peripheral vision as my feet keep moving.  The pedestrian traffic is thickening as I get closer to the city’s heart and I hear the clacking of passing cabs and the orla pulling them more and more frequently.  I’ve been walking for a good while now, but I don’t hail any of the cabs that come my way.  I never have on those infrequent occasions when I’ve taken this particular stroll.  Call it penance, if you want.

I glance up from my brooding and that hovering point, checking my bearings like a swimmer coming up for a quick breath before diving under the waves again.  The structures around me are noble-looking and in fine repair.  Solid, as one might say.  A far cry from the worn and weary dwellings in my part of town.  The low street covering has been replaced with the high arc of soaring pavilions, far overhead.  This allows the tall architecture of office buildings and fancy penthouses, you see, so that the fancy folk who live in these parts can ignore the inconveniences of Venusian life that we commoners have to deal with.

I’m more or less where I figured I was.  I give a snort and dive back into my thoughts.

I’ve heard of places--shrines--where people make pilgrimages and one of the many rites of passage is that the pilgrims have to walk in some kind of difficult, winding route even though more direct and more comfortable transportation is available.  An ironic comparison flashes through my mind as another cab rattles past unhailed.

I’m no holy pilgrim and where I’m going is no saint’s shrine, but I keep walking just the same.

Other people flow past me in both directions.  It’s been a good hour or more since I left the office and my feet start to protest.  A rumble in my stomach reminds me that I haven’t eaten anything recently either.  I ignore both.  My destination is close now, only a little ways ahead.

The crowds begin to thin again a few minutes later as I pass through Aphrodite’s center, a true bitch’s heart.  The administrative complex looms up on my right side but I don’t even give it a glance.  Further up, however, I spy the upper portion of the structure that marks the end of my penitent’s trek, rising even above the high-rise buildings.  The spire of the cathedral doesn’t quite reach the smooth crystal pavilion sheltering the grounds below.

Compared to its soaring, elegant counterparts on Earth, the Cathedral of St. Denis is a squat affair, the main structure only two stories high and the spire reaching maybe another story and a half above that.  The builders had wanted it to sit completely beneath the sheltering pavilion and since the cathedral itself sits on a ridge--its main axis oriented parallel to the ridgeline--something had to give and that something was the cathedral’s height.  The designers compensated for that lack, however, by pouring their efforts into ornamentation.  I haven’t cared for churches in a long time, but this thing is gaudy as all hell.

The front grounds slope up from the city streets below, taken up by carefully maintained gardens and an impressive promenade wide enough to host the imperials’ processional on those rare occasions of formal state visits to Venus.  A stone wall screens off the rear grounds, extending from the flanks of the cathedral itself, and it is on those grounds that my destination lies.  I trudge up a winding walk that leads from street level toward a section of that stone wall that’s interrupted by wrought iron fencing and a latched gate.  I lift the latch, step through the gate, close it behind me again, and continue upslope over the grassy field littered with headstones and other grave markers.  After a few minutes of walking, I spot what I’m looking for.

The monument rises above the surrounding memorials and headstone like a beacon, ornate and oversized like the ego of the man who’d commissioned it.  I remember how there had been murmuring at the time, in that quiet, waspish way of tea-time gossip, over the fact that the wife of a ducal heir had not been afforded a place in the family’s crypt but had instead been interred in the open grounds alongside those of more common stock, even if those grounds had been of the most noble and prestigious cathedral of the Territory.

In the end, however, allowance had been made in the collective judgement of tasteful society, and in the minds of the matrons who were its iron-willed arbiters, for the obvious depth of the heir’s grief, as well as for the beautiful stonework which had been employed to create an eternal memorial to his lost love.

I know better, of course, and permit myself a quiet, rueful laugh.  The wife had been given no place in the family crypt because the widower-husband judged her a failure in her most sacred duty, a failure not so much for dying but for dying and taking his firstborn son along with her.  Because of that failure, she deserved only his contempt, though he could not say so much, not in public anyway.  What he could do, though, was to banish her from his life and from her position within the family, but doing so while constructing a monument to her public memory--something which would fade soon enough.  That’s exactly the kind of subtlety and deft manipulation of popular sentiment which would go on to serve him well in his political career: he comes off the hero, honored for his very public display of grief, all the while jettisoning unwanted and now useless baggage.

I’d admire the man if I didn’t hate him so much.  Hell, maybe I admire him a bit anyway.  He’s still a bastard, though.

The larger-than-life statue of a woman, meticulously carved from an exquisite marble, stands on top of a base that’s two feet square and three feet tall.  As the figure itself is another seven feet in height, the whole ensemble soars a good ten feet off the ground.  The sculptor was talented, and captured the likeness of his subject perfectly, right down to the slight upturn of her nose.  He swathed her in angelic robes, the outstretched wings, each nearly as long as the figure was tall, made the intended symbolism plain.  If the sun ever shined here on Venus, this thing would cast a fair amount of shade.

I take a seat on the manicured lawn, stare at the name and pair of dates etched into the stone base, then let out a long, slow breath.

“Hello there, Christiana,” I say softly.  “It’s been a while, I suppose.”

The monument doesn’t reply.  It never does.  I don’t know why I expect this visit to be any different than all the others.  The rest of the planet is far away now and a bubble of quiet settles around the two of us.  Even the constant chatter of the eternal city is muffled.

“That bastard you decided to marry is up to no good again,” I explain.  “He’s been up to no good for a long, long time now, in fact.  But of course, you already knew that.”

I fall silent again and stare at nothing in particular for a time.  There’s not much point in saying a lot anyway.  Hell, I don’t even know why I’m even here or what keeps me coming back.  And I’ve tried to figure it out, believe me.   What is it to have loved someone so much that even when she’s torn your chest open and crushed your heart in her cruel talons and you hate her for doing that, you still can’t get her out of your system or let her go? 

I know, doesn’t make sense to me, either.  And I’ve been living with it for twenty-five goddamn years.

Then, all of a sudden, like a slap in the face, I do know exactly why I’m here, why I’ve come to this place today after all this time.  The understanding itself isn’t so much new--the pieces have been laying scattered about for a while now--but everything snaps together in this moment of clarity, like being made instantly sober somehow after a week-long bender.

I know what words I have to say next, have to say out loud for myself to hear as much as anything else.

“Christiana,” I begin.  “I loved you.  You were a ruthlessly ambitious bitch who cast me aside like garbage and still I loved you.  I followed you to this planet after losing everything--my job, my pride, my self-worth.  I watched you marry him.  I watched you die.  And still, even then, even after all you’d done to me and even though I hated you for it, still I loved you.”

I pause.  My heartbeat has kicked up a notch and I don’t care for that.  But Christiana’s grave waits for me to continue, so I do.

“But I’m here today to tell you that’s all done.  It’s over.”  I have this strange sense of release, of a knot untying somewhere inside, and it’s as though I’ve stood up and stepped back from the scene, watching some other man who’s wearing my clothes and my face saying these words.

“It’s all done now,” I repeat, “because there’s someone else--”

“Nick?”  A far-too-familiar voice breaks into my awareness and I catch sight of an approaching figure in the corner of my vision.  I turn my head to see Mel slowly coming up the sloping grounds towards me.  My mind goes completely blank for a split second, then kicks into overdrive.

I stand up and give her a stern look.  “How did you find me here?”

Mel doesn’t reply, but keeps on coming, her expression determined.  She stops a few feet away, looks at me, looks at the inscription on the base of the moment, then looks back at me again.

“I had a hunch,” she answers finally.  “And I remembered what you’d mentioned about this cathedral.”  She cocks her head slightly.  “It didn’t take much for me to put the pieces together.”

“A hunch?” I ask.

“Sure,” she replies, almost offhandedly.  “You know all about hunches, don’t you?”  I nod, allowing her point, and she continues.  “I’ve had a number of hunches lately--many more, in fact--and I’ve decided that I’m not going to wait any longer.  We’re not talking later.”  She jabs a finger at the manicured grounds. “Right here and right now, Nick.  I will ask you questions and you will give me answers.”

Now there are a couple more dodges that I might be able to try at this point--one more distraction, a bit more sleight of hand--but I let it all go.  Maybe it’s the realization I’d just had.  Maybe it’s the interrupted confession.  Maybe I’m just tired of juggling knives.

So instead of dodging, I look her right in the eye.  “Go for it,” I say.

“My case.”  She goes straight to it.  No dallying, no foreplay.  I always did like that about her.  “Have you told me everything you know about my case?  About the man I’m seeking?”

“No,” I answer simply.

“You’ve held out on me.”  It’s an accusation, not a question, but I reply anyway.

“Yes.”

Her eyes are roaring with dark flame now.  They burn right through me.  “Why?”

I take a deep breath, allowing a heartbeat’s pause.  “The truth?”

She nods once, says nothing.

“Because there are more important things in life than revenge,” I tell her.  “Because you haven’t yet committed yourself beyond the point of no return.  Because there are choices you can still make, a life you can still live.”

“Your pretty little speech to Señorita Pierce,” Mel observes.  “I was not wrong then.  You were talking to me.”

She’s got me there.  Dead to rights.  “Yes,” I admit.  “I was.”

“I’ll ask again--why?”

“You’re a talented and strong young woman, Mel,” I answer honestly, more honestly than I’ve been with a woman in a long, long time.  “You’ve got your whole life ahead of you yet.  I didn’t want to see you throw that life away.”

“Did you not hear what I said to you, Nick?” she asks, her words careful and pointed and precise like knife-thrusts.  “That night in Adonopolis?”

I reach back into my memory for the conversation.  “I heard you.”

“Then I’ll say it once more, just to be clear: my life is my own.  My life is my own for me to do with as I see fit.”  Her expression hardens.  “It is not for you--or for anyone else--to decide what my choices should or should not be.”

“If you kill him,” I point out, “if you try to kill him--hell, if word even gets out that you’re planning to try to kill him, you will die.”

Mel gives a small nod, as if I’ve confirmed something.  “I thought so.  Another of my hunches.”

I wait for the inevitable.

“This man I seek,” she states far too calmly.  “You know who he is.”

“Yes.”

“And you know where he is.”

“Yes.”

“How long?” she asks, her voice low and deadly.  “How long have you known this, Nick?”

I swallow hard.  “Ever since the train ride to Adonopolis.  Ever since you described him to me.”

Her eyes flare.  “How?”

“Because I’m the one who shot off the tip of his left ear,” I answer.  “Because he is the one who took Christiana from me.  Because the man you seek, the man you wish to kill to avenge your brother, is Diego Antonín Michel Laurent, duke and viceroy of the Venusian Territory of the Franco-Spanish Empire.”

Mel’s eyes narrow.  She stares intently at me for a long time, saying absolutely nothing.  I’d almost rather she were screaming at me.

Then, without comment, she suddenly turns and marches down the slope again.  The rigid line of her back and her slightly elevated chin tells me all I need to know about her state of mind.

Now, any man who values his ability to father children would know that this is a time to let a woman like Mel go, allow her time to blow off some steam before attempting to talk with her again.  But I’m either too dumb or too stubborn for that.  Probably both.

She’s already several yards away now and the gap is growing.  “Mel--” I start to call out, taking a step to follow.

“Monsieur Philips?” a voice behind me interrupts and I halt where I am.  I turn to see a uniformed gendarme approaching from the direction of the other main gate to the grounds, accompanied by what I presume to be a plainclothes detective.  It’s the second of the men who’s speaking.

“You are Nicholas Philips?” the detective asks again. 

What is it with this gravesite today?  It’s like a goddamn Shriners’ convention.  “Who’s asking?” I growl.

He reaches into his breast pocket, removes his badge.  “I am Detective Inspector Gérard Picoult.”  He puts the badge away.  “I need to ask some questions of you, monsieur.”

I’m in no mood for a game of twenty questions and my expression no doubt makes my sentiment plain, but I also know better than to get too prickly with the law.  “Go ahead,” I reply gruffly.

“Did a Mademoiselle Roberts visit you today at your office?”

Unwillingly, my eyes widen a bit at that.  “She did,” I allow.

“What did this visit entail?”

“She offered me a job,” I answer.  “I declined.  She left.”

“And this job you mention, what did it entail, exactly?”

I’m getting impatient now.  “Listen,” I tell the detective as I cast a glance at Mel in the distance as she reaches the gate, “if you want to know about what the woman wanted, why don’t you just go ask her?”

Picoult’s expression is completely neutral.  “Simone Roberts fell from a window of her sixth floor penthouse a little more than half an hour ago.  Your name was found in her datebook.  I’m afraid, monsieur, that I’m going to have to ask you to come with me.”

 

TO BE CONTINUED