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She Laughs Like God

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Do you think you’ll buy me lots of diamonds?
AUTOMATON: Yes, and also a gun.
“National Anthem”, Lana Del Rey

 

 

 

 

I.

She is pale blonde and sharp as a razor. From across the room, even through the dark, the fug of smoke and the crowd filling the space, he can see her. He has a particular eye for women—that he won’t deny—but this is to her credit, not his. She is in the corner. She is shining.

She looks up at him and smiles, slow, the expression making incision into her face, and he tilts his head, nodding her over. The ashtray by his wrist is full: he has been here for such a long time, on this night, this queer dull night, so much like any other. A blunt night, until she looked up and it sharpened into the shape of her. Her teeth are biting into her lip; he can see it from here. When she picks up and starts moving through the crowd, it parts like liquid around her, like a blade through butter. Like she’s the only one there at all.

In an instant there’s no one else, and there hasn’t been, not tonight. He forgets the crawl of time, how much of it he’s spent here, this long empty night when every woman who walked by had a face that faded far into the background. He’s not drunk enough to blur the world, yet, and he’s not desperate. Never is. Not him. But how pleased he is to let the hours slip back as she slips in, to forget that the ash-mountain near his hand is evidence, not accident. No: the world is reconfigured for her; he is merely a man placed like a prop in a hotel bar, a bar that was filthy long before he got here, and he has been waiting, without knowing it, for her all night.

He’ll take it. One night’s worth of incandescent blonde resolution, in a dress cut tight to that long body. He straightens up, watching her, fitting himself better into his own.

She slides into the stool next to him, tight satin-sheathed hips first, or maybe that’s just where he’s looking.

She doesn’t offer her name.

Two drinks line up next to the ashtray the bartender doesn’t want to refill; the crowd thins and her legs uncross, his hand slips up against her knee, baring his room key’s cool metal against her warm skin. Less warm than he expected, maybe, and she doesn’t flinch at the metal. Just smiles, like they’re already home, and slips her fingers up against his wrist, under his sleeve.

Four glasses. Her breath is warm against his neck, her hand under his collar, she’s not quite whispering, but her voice is deep in her throat, and it’s close enough to sound like a secret even if she’s saying nothing he’ll remember later, nothing worth remembering, nothing at all. The point isn’t her words. The point is her hand, his hand, his hand at the hem of her skirt and her nails slowly scratching at the nape of his neck. It’s he who’s shivering, pliant under her touch, him with his eyes closed. When he opens them, the bartender’s fixed him with a funny too-close gaze.

Piss off, he thinks, heat under his skin leaching the heat from his thoughts. I’m paying you.

He leaves a parsimonious tip. Six glasses left behind. Three and three. The bone of his wrist knocks against the glass when he gets up, condensation on his skin, sleeve pushed back still in the shape her hand left behind.

They make it to the elevator upright enough, and then the door slides shut and his hands nearly forget which floor to press for; she is tall and sleek against him, arching in even before he turns around, and her hands are astonishing, her hands are beneath his lapels, close as a pickpocket and seeking, perhaps, his heart.

Bit early for that, surely. He takes her face in his hands, kisses her and feels her bend in, the height of her in her heels, the satin crumpling under his hands as he tries to pull her into a shape like his, small and manageable. It is he who leans into her, who could lose his balance if she stepped back; good thing, then, that he is betting on a body that’s bending to him. A woman who’s sighing into his mouth with all she has.

The elevator opens, and he trips back over wood-varnish and flattened red carpet, paled by footsteps; he takes her hands in his, clutches them so ardently that he nearly forgets he needs the key to his room. Then he does and it isn’t there, it’s in the wrong pocket—he blinks, breaks apart from her, and she’s grinning like a thief, the key in her hand. She traces the neckline of her dress, smoothing it, for the moment, back into place, like she’d never hidden it away. Her hand is still tucked under fabric, tucked up against her collarbone, when he opens the door, invites her in first. Ladies first, and as he closes the door, he watches her skirt ruck up against the motion of her long legs, the beautiful sham of satin that is that dress. He can see everything from here. Doesn’t even have to move in closer, doesn’t even have to squint, but then he closes the door and her hands are on the zipper at her side. She unzips and it falls away like liquid, like it was never there, like she has never been anything but pure bare white gold standing in front of him, falling sinuous against the sheets. The bone of her hip presses folds into the fabric and he closes his eyes, breath thick in his throat.

Before he is kneeling on the bed, he is under her hands, her fingers competent with the buttons of his jacket and his shirt, untangling the knot of his tie, and she touches him like she knows him, like she loves him. And in that moment, he could say the same to her, could, for a temporary second, offer it and mean it. Here is my heart, he’d be willing to think, as he unzips his pants.

He’s a pragmatist. He doesn’t say a thing. He silences himself against her skin, against the wet warmth of her mouth, the hitching column of her throat, the peak of her nipple. He didn’t ask her up here to speak.

She moans, God, against his ear, louder as he slides inside her, God, God—

It echoes in his head even afterward, when the only sound in the room is the ragged combination of their breaths. “It’s Gaius,” it occurs to him to say. He lays a hand on the curve of her hip. “By the way. My name.”

She turns over, slowly, arching under his hand. “What makes you think I didn’t know that?”

“You didn’t say.”

“Gaius,” she says, then, tucking the name between her tongue and her teeth. He shudders, hand stroking over her, covetous of her shining skin, bright and slick with sweat beneath his fingertips. His sweat he thinks. Climbing back up to the peroxide starburst of her hair, the way it tangles in his fingers; to the gleaming flush of her face, her parted mouth catching his thumb in her teeth. “I know everything.”

It’s a pretty joke, then. She’s not biting hard enough to hurt, then.

 

II.

He’s at a cocktail party later that week, half Nobels and half LAPD, all cheeringly excited about certain forensic breakthroughs to which his name’s casually attached; he’s being fêted and the champagne’s only going so far when it comes to saving him from the forced pleasure of everyone else’s rather pallid company when he sees her in the doorway, raising a glass.

He knocks aside the biologist next to him and ignores at least three women’s lipsticked smiles as he butts by them, all tweed and elbows. Nearly trips in his haste to get to her. It's like his body's got a life of its own these days.

She’d been gone in the morning when he’d woken up and he’d blinked, too indignant to call it convenient, if anyone was to leave it was meant to be him—but she’s been fresh and raw in his head all week, like a cut under his tongue; he couldn’t stop worrying at the shape of her. The memory was so pristine it seemed manufactured, and she’d left no scent on the sheets. But she’s here now, lipstick printed on the rim of her glass and all. Like something he’s been looking for all night. Like a song stuck in his head, playing on a loop since she left. He doesn’t question what she’s doing at a forensic conference: her dress is the color of blood under a microscope, and that’ll do as an answer for now.

He stands close enough to touch her, close enough that standing by her is like touching her without reaching out. Her hip nudges against the hand that rests by his side, and he slides it over the curve of her waist, easy, lazy, allowed.

“Tired of being adored?” she smiles, and he resists, then, the urge to rest his head against the place above her neckline, where her breasts rise and fall above the scoop of silk.

“Don’t be silly.”

He’s still wearing the grin he puts on for the crowd and it’s hardly a lie; he’s got the toasts as well as the champagne keeping him warm. But even his star is dim next to her, and everyone else in the room simply fades back, like so much wallpaper, like so much white noise. He’s content with the multitude, but she’s not the multitude.

Or maybe she’s just new, but she’s new and tall and blonde and cryptic and has such a way with her hands. Her hands on his lapels, amusing themselves lazily with his collar, stroking against the hollow of his throat as he swallows against the scratch of her red nails.

“Let’s get out of here,” he says.

This time, when she’s peeling off her dress, he notices the cross, delicate, that she keeps around her neck, the way she leaves it on when she’s taken everything else off.

“Bit blasphemous,” he says, following the cross like a glinting arrow and trailing a finger idly between her breasts, “don’t you think?”

She shakes her head. It’s not quite a laugh she gives him. It’s something out of reach, infuriating. “You don’t understand.”

“Hardly.” He laughs. “I never pretended to—”

“That was God, Gaius.”

“What?”

She slips a hand between his legs. “That was God. That’s always been God.”

He shifts, stirring under her hand, hard and half-anxious in his skin, hips pushing up closer to her. The base of his spine arches as if it doesn’t belong to him. “Really?” he manages, he is sputtering, he is very undignified. “I don’t remember that sacrament.” He knew them once, indoctrinated with them as all children are, but the cleverness knocked them out long ago, and good thing too, although he cannot lay claim to cleverness now. He is thinking of her hand, and that takes up most of what he is thinking, but there is still space in some vestigially clever part of his brain, some part not quite caught up to the maddening touch of her fingers—he hisses, teeth against his lip—some part of his thoughts that’s kept the space to be put out over the idea of some spying God. That that’s what’s behind her eyes. Faith, he thinks, how invasive.

“This is sacred,” she says, and one long leg hitches against him, her knee grazing his ribs. “Not profane.”

Slowly, she strokes her free hand over his chest, his sternum—the back of his mind remembers the names of bones, he’s thinking in catalogues, as if he can keep the God talk out so long as he names everything first. Sternum, clavicles, acromion—she makes him conscious of his bones, desire down to the marrow. Just fuck her again, he thinks to himself, hands sliding down against her lumbar curve. Again and again until you get your sense back. Keep your head.

She is wet and slick and astonishing as she slides over him, slides him into her, and he digs his fingers into the bony hollow of her sacra, watching her eyes close. She rocks slowly over him, against him, and there is rapture on her face. Somehow in the dark of the room, the shadows seem to part around her, and that’s not a myth. No aspirations of heaven here, nothing further than his cock deep in the wet depths of her, than the tangle of sheets in the hotel bed. This is theirs, elevated no higher. This belongs to him.

He comes with a strangled cry, biting into her shoulders, and she shudders, long and slow, throughout her body. “God,” she whispers again into his ear. Teeth graze the cartilage: “God.”

When he pulls back, her eyes are still closed, the luminous look still on her face, and even as he softens inside her he feels her slip somehow out of his grasp. He moves back, up on the bed. “You don’t think that’s the least bit inappropriate? Or is this meant to be a confession—you’ll have to remind me how this works. I’ve forgotten all that rigmarole.”

Her face stills, at once, into something keen and cold. The light freezes; she is a statue, and she is not looking at him. “Was that rigmarole?”

“Whatever it was, it wasn’t to do with the bloody old man in the sky! I mean—who does a man have to kill for a moment’s peace of mind between the sheets?”

Now she looks back.

Now she smiles.

“There’s hope for you yet.”

 

III.

He blinks himself awake in the dark. She does the same.

He can hear every creased flutter of her lashes, every smoothly falling fold of her silk nightgown with far more acuity than he knows he ought. Knows that she is waking up right that second because he is. Although he’s blurry, he’s been sleeping, sleeping God knows how long, he is clear on this, and she is clear, point blank. Instantly awake and thinking, like there’s something in her that never sleeps at all.

He doesn’t remember inviting her in. Then again, he can’t imagine her asking for an invitation.

She gets up, padding across the thin hotel carpet, and turns on the light. It buzzes into naked fluorescent sharpness above his head, into his eyes; he puts up a hand. “What’d you do that for? I could see you fine.”

And he had been able to: her platinum hair had caught the light filtering through the cracked window blinds, the orange and white flares of the city at night, and the bones of her face had lit up too like knives in the dark. Now he can’t see angles, just skin bleached the color of her hair, the color of the white light outside, that slip of hers the same, peach silk in softer light, but under the fluorescent it looks the color a bone turns in the desert. The shadows under her collarbone are pale violet, but not under her eyes. Most people wouldn’t look this beautiful this late, this starkly lit; most people wear out. Not her.

“We need to talk,” she says. “I turned on the light so we could look each other in the face.”

“Didn’t ask you here to talk.”

“Did you ask?”

She’s smiling a cat’s smile. He can see her tongue behind her teeth. Beneath the sheets, he’s exhausted, sweating, still, and still he starts to stir again. Sits up. He can see her breasts beneath the slip, the sleekness of her skin like it’s never been touched. She’s standing just out of reach.

Damn her.

(He thinks he sees her bite into her tongue, like she caught the thought. Smiling, all the while.)

“No. But you let me in, Gaius.”

“Didn’t.” Might be fuzzy from sleep and scotch, but he can remember where his night started out. Can’t he? “Didn’t do any such thing.”

He beckons and she sits down onto the bed, sliding into the open space of his hand, silk and flesh filling his fingers. “If you didn’t let me in,” she asks, snaking her arms around his neck, “then why am I here?”

Not a question he can answer. Not now, night thick on his eyes and tangling the back of his tongue, maybe not ever. But he’s never questioned that he’s glad. Not with silk wrinkling under his hands.

“Confession,” he says, petulant, does she really need to ask? “Isn’t that what you said last time? Let’s get that nightgown off you and you can absolve me, or whatever it is you do.”

“Last time?” She raises an eyebrow. “You said you’d kill for salvation.”

“Not salvation, surely.” It takes him a moment. “And don’t be so damn literal.” No wonder she’s faithful, he thinks. Indicates a lack of imagination.

“I’m only curious.” She tips her head, weighing him like the scales, weighing the words in her mouth. Her hand curls around the nape of his neck, her breath in his ear. “What would it take to move a man like you to murder?”

Move. Right. Charming emotional buzzword, and he knows what that sort of thing is for. “You, is that what you’d like to hear? Darling, I’d kill for you.” He think he heard that on a radio play somewhere, right before the gunshots started going off.

Her eyes glint in the dark, satisfied, and he kisses the cool column of her throat, mouth in the divot between her collarbones. She never seems to sweat. Could put a fellow off, but there’s nothing cold-blooded about the way she sighs.

“Would you do that for me?”

It is the dead heat of the night, when the world feels foggy and unreal; it is a lonely island of a night in a borrowed bed, bought-and-borrowed time, and she is sliding into his lap, straddling him. He lies back beneath her. He would do anything for her. Anything in the world.

The promises don’t mean a thing, he expects. She has him at her fingertips, she’s got to know as much. She has him at her fingertips and he promises her as much destruction as she likes. Good, gritty fantasy, he doesn’t mind. Whatever gets her legs spread like this, her throat arched and ecstatic, biting into the hand he slips between her lips to cut off her prayers, biting into his shoulder. Whatever gets her off.

“So who’d you want dead so badly?” he asks, and she shakes her head.

It isn’t about that.

Good, he thinks, they’re on the same page. Purely theoretical. If she can talk this easily about murder, then there’s hope yet for her rapport with God.

He wakes up alone in his room. The next night, he dreams of bloodstains still wet on the walls, on the floor, and the first thing he does is look to his hands.

They’re clean. He breathes in and out, shaky and slow.

 

IV.

It’s never been a tangible reality to him, before: they bring in corpses in another room, wrapped in white and plastic so he never has to see a face. They give him samples, blood contained in thin clear strips of laminate, hair, nails, tissue, and under the microscope they turn into cellular fractals, like stained glass done in plastic, and in the computer they turn to binary, and then there is never a body, there has never been a body, there will never be a body, only lists and numbers and catalogues and facts.

His genius has always been the intangible. There’s never been anything with a body to follow him home.

Maybe it’s the ghost of his job that followed him to his borrowed hotel home, that lit the room with white hair the color starlight’s meant to be when it’s not hidden behind the smog, that wrapped its body in a dress the hot scarlet of vascular tissue, that waited for him with a smile until he bought it a drink. Maybe being haunted is the fair-play turnabout of being lauded; maybe the minute her body was in his bed he was meant to think in terms of what came beyond, the face, the ghost, the soul.

Oh, she’s big on the soul. If she’d shut up about the soul for two seconds flat, maybe he wouldn’t be dreaming of blood every night. And not the geometric precision of cells, either. Blood on the walls. On the floor. Behind his eyes, beating like a headache: he can see it in the mirror when he opens them every morning, finding them a little more bloodshot every day.

“I should drink less,” he says to his reflection. It echoes off the glass. Comes back female, apparently.

“You should drink less.”

“Oh, it’s you.” He turns, sighing, exasperated. Half-shaven and flushed, flecks of lather on his face and braces loose around his hips, he feels more exposed than he is when he’s stripped down in bed with her. She looks splendid, of course. In white today. Maybe she came back just to taunt him.

“Came by to check on you,” she says like she read his thoughts. “You were in a bad way. You were talking in your sleep.”

“And what was I saying?” He lays down the straight razor in his hand, pushes it out of his fingers’ reach as he leans back against the wet dingy white of the counter tile. “Happy thoughts?”

“Your soul is in turmoil.”

“Well, it would be, wouldn’t it?” With you looking like that, every morning and every night, he doesn’t say. Seems in line with her promises of the soul. This is the first time he thinks he’s seen her in sunlight: the weak early light filters through the crooked blinds and catches her, her tight impossible dress turning into a tight impossible sheer dress. The room looks like hell in the morning, and she looks like—

Now, now. Wouldn’t want to give her too much ground. Don’t say it out loud, he’s reprimanding himself, he’s always reprimanding himself, and still by some queer accident she’s already gotten more of his thoughts than any other pair of women put together. She grins, vixenish, like she can hear him all the same, and if he were to tell her otherwise he knows she’d grin the exact same way. Very frustrating. Could move a man to saying stupid things. Stupid things about red-soaked walls in sleepless minds, and the many ways to potentially stain a white dress.

She moves, quick as smoke, into the room, into breathing in his air. It would be irrational to believe that he can sense the deficit, the oxygen she takes from him for herself, but that doesn’t stop his lungs constricting the minute she’s close. Her fingertips slip into his mouth, like something to bite instead of his tongue.

He is silent

“Good man,” she whispers, and strokes his hair.

His wet hands leave prints on her hips, her skin flush and clear beneath the thin dress. It reassures him, somehow. He doesn’t believe a word she says. Say it again, he thinks.

“Unburden yourself,” she says, she repeats, she turns it to a gasp as he clutches at her, as he hitches her hips against the sink. The dress slides up tight over her hips, his hands grasping at her thighs, and her teeth graze, delicately sharp, against the underside of his jaw. Sharp as a razor.

He gasps, sharp, and stills.

“Unburden yourself,” she says again, soft and sweet in his ear, the edge of the razor naked against his throat.

“To you?”

“To God.”

“To—” He swallows. The blade scrapes his throat. “Right. Yes. That’s rational. Talk to God about my—” About your damn murder fetish, charming prayer that'll make. Not perhaps the wisest thing to say to a woman with a blade to his throat. That word doesn’t go over well, usually—fetish, that is. Seems accusative. Heaven forfend he should accuse a woman threatening to cut his throat.

Or, well. Something like that. Her face is hard as a statue, but he sees no rage in it; she is simply, incandescently severe. Might as well call it mad, of course, but all the same—

He will swear up and down on any holy text that slips under his fingers that he doesn’t believe in angels, but there are moments when she makes him think of flaming swords.

“To God.” He nods, bows his head; looking down, it’s easier. His face is hidden. His eyes. Unburden yourself: he lets them close.

He hears the razor click back into its sheath. “Good man,” she whispers, now, again, at last, and he shudders out a breath.

Sliding off the sink, she kisses him light as a breath on the mouth, wishes him a good day at work. The sun is up, it’s a day like any other, after all. He doesn’t turn around to watch her go. Instead, he stares at himself in the mirror, rubs a hand over his neck. She didn’t leave a mark.

Nothing to lose, then. He is a man of reason, he thinks, watching the world from the back of the cab on the way to work. He’s taken up and down this road before, and he’s never needed to look at the bright Marys here and there by the wayside, the altars bedecked with flowers, the crosses shining close to the skyline. All flash, no substance; the city’s bright with beacons of faith, and there are plenty of dreams that carry a brighter light than any of those crosses, those painted Virgins. This is a city of painted virgins lain up on a thousand altars; the ones made of plaster are only the meanest of them. There are too many, surely, to worship just one.

But when the day is done, when he’s back on the concrete and watching the sun slip down the horizon with eyes that ache from the lab, he ends up looking in spite of himself. Walking up to the corner of Temple and Alameda, he stops before he catches a cab and finds himself with a church at his elbow. No shock. Looks up at the bright light of the neon cross above him, shining like a hospital sign. God’s hospital: he pushes inside, and in the back of his mind he’s already looking for a blonde with a scalpel.

None such.

Treading carefully along the worn velvet of the aisle between the pews, he evaluates his surroundings. It is shadowy inside and lonely, lit up only by the small tongues of flames licking up from little votives. The painted Marys brought him Catholic luck, he sees: there’s a confession booth in the corner, and he knows enough to stumble inside, to sit down, heavily, on the small bench. Lets his head fall into his hands, and collects himself.

This he knows, needs no experience to get the measure of. Here is where he is meant to offer up his heart on his tongue. Amidst thick shadows and the fading smell of incense, he’s meant to repent, to remember what sacrifice means. You’d have to be wilfully blind not to know at least this part of the game: he’s even read the game book before, in pieces, only to see through it. Reason like a razor cutting through the trappings of image.

He waits, now, forcing himself into petulant stillness. Dust and light filter through the iron lacings, and the confessional is silent, but for the rise and fall of breath disturbing the air.

“Hello?”

Two breaths, on either side of the wood.

“Hello?”

Only silence, wordless as the voice of God.

Impatiently, he knocks on the wood, and the ratatat echo of it makes him jump, in spite of himself. He stands up, squinting through the grille. On the other side, there is a flash of gold beneath a banner vision of white cloth, and then it is gone.

He knocks into the wooden frame of the confessional door, bumping his forehead, his elbows, in his haste to get out. On the other side, the church is empty, all dusty altars and splinter-wooded pew and fluttering folds of velvet. There is the remainder of movement lingering in the air, a hint of perfume among the incense. The candles on the altar are smoking, freshly blown out.

“Is there anyone there?” he asks, almost shocked at the sound of his own voice. Asks again, indignant. People come here for answers. Not me, of course, but answers should be here for the taking all the same. Answers and absolution.

“We’re closed for services, sir.”

If he squints up at the balcony, he can just see the shape of the woman speaking, a vision in white. Head tipped down, her face catches more shadow than light. She blows out the last candle.

“I’ll lock the door after you.”

A stray lock of fair hair falls down from behind her white wimple, and his mouth hangs open. He looks as close as he can: she is more than beautiful, insofar as he can see. She is unpainted, unvarnished, written in the vestiges of light, and familiar as his hand.

She burns behind his eyes long after he has tripped, half-running, back up the aisle, long after the heavy metal of the church door clangs shut at his back, as he waits for a cab to drive by and tries not to listen to the persistent soft buzz of the neon above his head. He does not look behind him, does not look to the cross, once he is in the cab and driving off. In nomine patris, filii, spiritus sancti, chorus his thoughts, irritatingly independent of his will—prayer is as irresistibly Latinate as science.

Closing his eyes, he rests his head against the window for a cool, silent moment, world wrapped in leather and glass. The car jounces and his head knocks against the pane; skull buzzing, he rubs his head, fumbles in his coat for cigarettes and a light. His hands are shaking against the lighter. When the flame ignites, he sees her in it again, instantly. Her.

“D’you have a sister?” he asks that night, when she comes to him—he knew she would—and she laughs, slipping the zipper down her side.

“I thought you didn’t want to know anything about me.” Her fingers wrap around his wrist, pulling his hand into the space between fabric and skin. In an hour he won’t remember what color her dress is—only that it wasn’t white. “Easier that way.”

He’d protest, but she kisses him on the column of his neck, slides her hand between his legs, over his pants. He’d protest, but he’s silent, he doesn’t call her name, she never offered it up. He’d protest, but she’s so considerate, it would seem rude.

Her tongue draws a lazy map along the line of his throat, and she tells him, everything you need to know, you know already; yes, oh, yes, he listens to her and feels as wise as she needs him to be. Her hair is in his eyes, bright as the city’s neon stars, bright as votives, and he inhales against the pale gold of her skin, clutching fiercely at the symmetrical bones beneath, and he sinks into her and drowns the mirror-image of the sister—he thinks of the habit and bites a cry into her shoulder. A projection, no more. Just like the rest.

She unzips his zipper, wraps her fingers around his prick without even unbuckling his belt. Her gasp as she slides over him, slick and tight, is rapturous.

It is easier this way, with names shed like clothing from the beginning. It doesn’t mean a thing, he can tell himself, as her legs wrap against his hips, as her nails rake up beneath his shirt. Every piece of it dreamed into being to be discarded by the morning, as beautifully false as that God of hers.

But say God were to speak.

(He has not forgotten that she was there in the morning, with sunlight in her hair and a razor at his throat. He will dream that night of votive candles and her face in their flickering light.)

He knows in spite of himself that He would speak in symmetries and shades of pale gold.

 

V.

They’re going to cut him off if he asks for another refill, but he came here to drown his thoughts in gin and olive juice and he’s doing a damn good job of it. Everything he needs to know, he knows already, and right now he knows that it feels good to burn his worries back with white martini heat. Easy enough. Maybe he’ll even pick up someone on the way out the door. A brunette, this time, perhaps.

“Don’t be foolhardy.”

She plays with his hair, scratching at the nape of his neck. He didn’t hear her walk in. Maybe she got lost in the piano, the smoke, maybe, maybe. Too many maybes. She’s a walking uncertainty, an unstable variable.

He doesn’t like it. Hard as that is to remember with her breasts pressed to his back.

He coughs. “What are you doing here?”

She’s got a predator’s grin. “Waiting for you,” she says, as if he didn’t feel enough like prey, and her other hand slips lazily down his spine, over his jacket, then under. She strokes him, fingers trailing against his belt, resting at the base of his spine. They settle there, shockingly heavy.

“You’ve come prepared.”

Did he, really? He imagines himself stripping the lab coat from his shoulders, waving goodbye to the guards with a smile on his lips that just won’t stay put; imagines himself slipping, code at his fingertips, into the lower lockers, rifling through the police blues while no one was looking. Keeping an eye out. He’s seen the guns those men carry. By comparison, the pistol he could have stolen was nothing. The pistol that would slip heavily into his belt, clumsy beneath his jacket and knocking at his vertebrae. What an insistent guest it would have been. The idea of stealing it feels like a fever dream, another one of those visions that belong to God rather than him. Well: God and gin. He takes a last gulp.

“I’m so proud of you.”

“Whatever for?” He turns around and he’s in her arms, wrapped in her without thinking. Would that he could stay this way. Wrapped up in this embrace, and not thinking a word. Would never last, of course. He prides himself on a mind that refuses to quiet—well, see where it’s gotten him now. Twined in the arms of his very own Helen and looking for Mephistopheles in every corner. He’s putting himself to shame. “I’ve not done a bloody thing,” he sputters.

All she does is smile, smile, wait. He wishes he could hate it, hate her for it. Wishes the future she promises didn’t make his pulse jump simply because it’s her doing the promising. But she’s irresistible and he’s never been much good for resisting anyway. “It’s going to be all right, isn’t it?” he asks her, and his smile is just as difficult to fix in place as he thought it would be.

She leans in and kisses his forehead.

“You are absolved.”

“For what?”

“For the man you’re about to be.”

He’s never felt less like a man, twitching in his skin, unsettled in her arms. He supposes he has to believe her: in a future in which he is glorious. He is tiny, reflected in her bright, watchful eyes, but she sees something more.

“It’s not me who sees—”

“Oh, spare me,” he bites off, and at once her hand on his neck is hard, her fingers tangle harsh knots into his hair, gripping at the back of his skull. His head slams down against the bar.

“No one is spared.” Her voice is distant and soft above him. “But Gaius, you could be glorious enough to save.”

“Buddy, I think you need to go.” The bartender is lifting him up by the arm.

“I—”

“You’re done.”

The bartender is already taking a cloth to the place before him, wiping away glass rings and spilt gin. He squints, wondering if there had been blood a moment before; he touches a hand to his forehead, comes away even and clean. Not a trace.

So he’s dreaming. So he’s off his face. No harm done.

He inhales a slow breath and ends up coughing on smoke, smiling beatifically at nothing, for she is gone, she’s always gone before the incrimination starts. It’d be so much easier if she’d just stay in place—but then she wouldn’t be her.

The bartender looks up at him.

“Friend to friend, bud—take a walk.”

“What a brilliant idea,” Gaius says, as if he’s never heard anything so clever in his life. How entirely absurd. He can hear himself: astonishment pitched a good octave higher than the piano. That plays and plays as he walks out, maneuvering hapless through the tables—he wonders if it really has been playing the same song all night, or if he's just got a particular riff stuck in his head. It's always the same song. She's probably turned it into a hymn by now—all the holier for the room's haze of sex and smoke. The room is far from silent, but he can feel a collection of stares at his back. Thinks: they must see him for what he is, the blood he imagines on his forehead and the gun he imagines at his back and the love, her love, not His, lighting him up to the world.

He’s dreaming in determinism. Fine.

The piano filters out once he closes the door.

Silence, then. It's never this quiet inside his head. Outside in the alleyway, he leans against the wall outside, taking in deep chemical breaths of the placid, smoggy air. It is almost purely dark where he rests: the ends are haloed with distant neon light, but none of it touches him in the alley’s centre, this dirty concrete spit of walkway.

“Look at you.”

No light but her, her hair, her dress. Close and white enough to gleam even through the shadow. Her hand on his back, her hands on his hands. Her hands guiding his over the metal butt of the pistol. Trigger here, beneath her shining nails. Safety off, clicking beneath her fearless fingers. Her nails are red, her smile is wide, the metal shines and he knows this is the stuff of dreams. Should go on a cinema frame. Should be happening anywhere but in his head.

“Hey, sir,” comes a voice from down the alley, and he freezes in his skin, and for a moment she is silent, for a moment he cannot look back at her. “Hey, sir,” and the voice is low and easy and malicious as the shadows, “you look like a rich son-of-a—”

The gun fires in his hands.

Recoil pins him to the wall, knocks him winded against the stone, but he gets up and runs. The wrong way. Toward, not backward—it was a man, young, maybe that’s a knife in his hand, razor-bright; he’s kneeling to get a closer look and he’s kneeling in blood, he’s reaching to make sure and his hands recoil from the wet red thing they touch.

“God,” he whimpers, “oh, God.”

A shot, she delineates with her red nails, straight through the heart. Impossible luck. Holy, she might call it, and he shudders.

“Why,” he starts to ask, then realizes that the question is wrong. “What am I going to do?” he asks, opening his hands.

“You’ve done it,” she says, closing them with hers.

He looks down at their joined hands, sees an act of prayer. He does not pull away.

A man’s dead. Or maybe just a piece of a dream, but his heart is choking in his throat and his hands are soaked in gore and if this is a dream, it shall be one in which he fears, in which he prays. He bows his head, shaking, shaking, the blood seeping through his pant legs, and she touches him like a blessing. He is reborn in a city of worship; he is weeping with his hands on a corpse. Either way, she has her arms around him, and he falls into her, blind with salt and neon, and she whispers promises that sink into his marrow, his blood, making cellular discrepancies from the wet stuff soaking his clothes. Muffled against her shoulder, against silk and skin, he can no longer tell where speaking begins, where thinking ends.

You will always know you are living. You will guard your life with everything you have.

And what’s that?

A gun, your mind, and me. You’ll never lose me.

He shudders in her arms until he is shapeless without her. He doesn’t have to ask her to promise. She is the promise. Sworn in blood, now, blood still wet enough to stain. It doesn’t look like it does under the microscope. He doesn’t suppose the world ever will again.

She clasps his face in her hands. I’ve made you glad to be alive, she says. I’ve made you understand God’s greatest blessing. Look at me, look at me, and he tears his eyes from the blood and the body, looks up at her and she is shining. Looks further and can see the bright white cross seared into the lit map of the city skyline, brighter, then, than the sign for the bar or the sign on the hill-tops, brighter, then, than anything.

 

VI.

The next morning he wakes up with his cheek pressed to the ragged fibers of the rug. Alone, of course, with a mouth dry as the carpet. The light is still buzzing above his head, switched on; blinking, he pushes himself up, resting his head against the side of the bed. Turns on the radio. Same weather as always, same sun. It’s going to be an earthquake morning.

He moves to get up, slowly, now, he tells himself, careful, as if there’s an audience. There will always be an audience, now. It’s all he wanted, once.

The radio buzzes news of a body found outside a Los Angeles bar, awaiting identification—

He switches it off. In the back of his mind, she smiles, draws her strap from her shoulder—so it falls just right when she applauds.

The sound echoes in his room, more tangible than he feels.

“You can do anything now,” she says.

Anything in the world. Most of all: live. Live in a world built fresh in her image, sharp and purposeful and never to be dulled again. The future looks like her, and she glows.

He should be grateful. She prayed for this. He killed for this.