You’re on an expense account, and the sky’s the limit.
It’s a Thursday night in November, early dark and city light coming through the picture window, and you’re sitting on a kingsize bed in a standard executive room in the Dallas Hyatt Regency. Your presentation to the suits at the client company here went well – you got the contract you’ve been targeting for three months – and you’ve already called your boss. She’s pleased. "Have fun," she said. "I’ll close my eyes when I sign your expense authorization."
And your boyfriend back in Indianapolis, whom your best friends have named Doug the Dick and who might even deserve it, isn’t picking up the phone. Not the cell, not at home. He’d better be feeding your cat Rufus, you think darkly. He’d better not be.... You don’t want to finish that thought. There are so many things he’d better not be doing, all of which you bet he is.
Doug the Dick is over, you think instead.
And you are in a hotel room, with no interesting posts on Livejournal (what’s the use of the wifi, then?), no emails but spam and work, and nothing much on TV. You have an unread paranormal romance in your briefcase, and ordinarily you love the things, but...
You’ve got an expense account.
As you rummage through your suitcase for anything remotely suitable for going out, a Madonna video comes on VH1 Classic. It’s "Bad Girl," that David Fincher one, with Christopher Walken as the Angel of Death watching Madonna make deadly bad choices. You’ve always liked its creepy perfection, and you stand still, a silk camisole in your hand, as Christopher Walken dances. Maybe you shouldn’t go out, you think suddenly. Maybe you should put on your night T-shirt, surf the net some more, see what’s in the minibar....
'I don’t wanna feel blue,' Madonna sings.
You’re still hearing that line when, dressed and made up, you’re riding the elevator up to the Dome Lounge, the bar at the top of Reunion Tower.
Of course you do feel blue, and sort of stupid, and very alone, once you’re up there. It’s too early for the DJ to be playing, but there are couples everywhere, big Texas hair on the women (and some of the men), suits and jeans, colourful drinks, colourful lights. You look again. Some of the colour comes from outside, the glow of urban sprawl, the nearby highrises decorated and shiny. The architectural equivalent of big Texas hair, you think, and you smile to yourself.
The too young bartender smiles back at you when you order a glass of champagne, and he fills it more full than he’s probably supposed to.
Weird. Although the bass in the music isn’t that noticeable, you think, the floor is vibrating...and then you realize that the lounge itself is revolving. It’s a slightly different view now, different lights.
You find yourself a table by the window, but the vibration and the lights get to you quickly, so you look back inside. Three people are getting off the elevator, and they’re... well, they’re worth looking at.
The first is a man, not very tall, but holding himself like he’s taller. He’s got this wide, knowing grin, and his well-cut suit – lawyer, you guess– fits him perfectly, and yet he looks like a real cowboy.
The couple behind him, though... the woman is young, maybe, although in a strange way she also seems ageless. Part of that might be her clothes, caught somewhere in the most flattering parts of the 40s and 50s, black lace and flutter and high heels; part of it might be her hair, curled like a glamour queen’s; part of it might be the bright wariness of her expression. And she’s got her hand on the arm of... well, you’ve always had a weakness for the Cary Grant type, and this guy, tall, silvering hair, also in an impeccable suit but clearly not a lawyer, looks pretty damn close. Then you notice that he’s holding a fedora, and he’s leaning on a mahogany cane in a nonchalant way, and you have to take a drink of champagne to cool yourself off.
The lawyer-cowboy says something to the couple, then slides off to the bar. You tell yourself not to watch his hips, but you do anyway. Bad girl.
The couple comes toward you, maybe a little slower because of Cary’s cane, but maybe just because they like strolling. He’s got rimless glasses on, you see when they get closer, he looks smart and oddly more dangerous, and you drink again – which is a good cover for watching them arrive at the last empty table, the one next to you. After brushing a kiss on her neck, the man holds out a chair for the woman – manners, old-fashioned and perfect – and then takes his own seat next to you. You can’t see his face any more, but....
"Yes, Anya. I bloody assure you one is not supposed to wear a hat indoors," he says in this crisp English accent. Oh, man, he’s perfect.
The woman sighs, using her whole body in a goofily elegant fall. "But, Rupert!"
"Just stop." He puts his hat down on the table as if that settles the argument, then carefully lays the cane on the floor next to the woman’s enormous handbag. When he gets back up, he turns his head to look outside, and you can see the beginnings of a frown. "I loathe revolving restaurants. So...naff."
"Yes, well, aesthetic principles aside, we’re here to work." Her American voice is now just as crisp as his. "Do you see him yet?"
"No. But then the Blind One says it’s early days yet. This is just a guess in any event."
"I like it up here," she says in seeming inconsequence, swaying in her seat to the music.
"You would." His voice is long-suffering and affectionate. "I think it’s sodding horrible. But I can endure this a while longer. Not all work, when you look like that..." He takes her hand and begins to play with it. His long male fingers dance over her pale feminine skin, big protecting small, and you feel more alone. He loves her, it’s written in every movement, and she smiles at him as if he causes her sun to rise and set.
You look outside at the dark sky, lit by sprawl and highrises and Texas money. You take another drink of champagne, and listen to the chill-out music. The floor vibrates under your feet. Slightly different view, different lights.
Rupert and Anya – you call them that in your head; their names suit them – have lowered their voices now, but you catch bits and pieces floating in the noise. They’re saying something about a champion and a threat, something about passers-through, passers-by, going incognito–
And as the waiter gets to their table, you feel a touch on your shoulder. When you turn around, it’s a pleasant face attached to a pretty spectacular body encased in black sweater and trousers. Trick of the outside light makes this guy’s skin look kind of green. He’s got two flutes of champagne and a smile. In an accent that doesn’t sound like anything, he says, "Hello. I’m sorry, but I saw you sitting alone, and... am I intruding?"
You’re too much of a good girl not to feel a little twinge of discomfort. You remember, flash-lit, the sex-and-death scenes from "Bad Girl."
You smile anyway and say, "Hi. No, please sit down."
"Thank you for the invitation," he says in a deeper voice, nausea-inducing for reasons you don’t quite understand, and takes the empty chair. This blocks your view of Rupert and Anya, which makes you uneasy, which makes you feel stupid. But he’s cute enough, and that is free champagne. Even on an expense account, you like a bargain.
His name is Chris, he says, with a funny hesitation. He finds out your name, and a little about your business trip, your solitude. He smells good, too, kind of musky, and when he leans forward and tilts his head, you feel dizzy and sick. Dizzier. Sicker.
The floor vibrates under your feet. Slightly different view, different lights. He really does look green. Or maybe that’s just you.
"Now," he says in a deeper voice still, and takes your hand. You think of Rupert and Anya holding each other, but it’s not the same. His hand is too hot, he’s holding too hard, he’s hurting you.
You murmur something and try to pull away, but he’s leaning in, the lights are changing, the world is dark. You don’t want to be here, not even for champagne, not for Christopher Walken dancing. You wonder sickly if this is being filmed.
His nails sink into your wrist, except they’re not nails, they’re claws. "Now," he says deeper still, and you want to scream but you can’t. "Now," he says, and with his other hand he reaches over and dabs at your blood, God, you’re bleeding–
"Now," says Rupert, looming and dangerous.
Chris says something in a hard-edged unfamiliar language, and then he is green and fanged, sharp edges coming through the shoulders of his sweater, and those blood-stained claws are going for Rupert. But Rupert’s faster, the mahogany cane whipping around to cut off air and voice. "Anya," he says–
"Got it." She appears in a swirl of black lace, one hand emerging from her open handbag, then throws something in Chris’s eyes and passes her hand over his head.
Together she and Rupert say something indistinguishable, but you feel the power, the vibration through the floor the glass the world, the shift in light.
And then there’s an empty seat where Chris had been, with only the extra glasses of champagne and your bleeding wrist to prove he was ever here.
"Bloody hell," Rupert mutters, and the tip of the cane hits the floor. He’s wincing a little, but trying to smile –
"Your shoulder, honey?" Anya’s already there, pressing her hand gently to his chest. "Old wound acting up? I’ve got packs ready in the fridge at home if necessary."
"Um," he says, which to you seems like an Englishman’s way of saying yes without admitting anything.
She kisses his shoulder, then turns to you. "I’ve got to get my poor heroic man home, but... are you all right?" Before you can say anything, she’s inspecting your wrist. "Oh, that’s not too bad, especially for the Chrestomage’s claws. Stay still for a second," and she’s rummaging in her purse.
You find your voice at that, even though all you can say is "Thank you, but... What?"
Rupert smiles at you, even through visible pain. "Sorry. Better not to think about it. Just, er, an accident. Dark moment in a light evening."
"Wait, wait. You two disappeared a green guy with fangs who was... who was hurting me," you say. "That was just an accident?"
"No, no, we meant to!" Anya says brightly. "That’s why we were here, at this, well, naff--" Rupert fails to control a grin-- "Nightery. We’d heard the Chrestomage was coming to town. Dimension-traveler, shape-shifter, and serial killer, consumes single females after he puts them in thrall with an exchange of blood, blah blah. Except–"
"Except where the sodding hell were you?" Rupert says sharply, to someone behind you.
You turn around. The lawyer-cowboy stands there, looking sheepish – and behind him there’s a hunk of dark, brooding man, his hands shoved into the pockets of his billowy coat. Lawyer-cowboy says in a rich Texas voice, "Sorry, buddy. Champion here apparently got lost."
"One-way streets, new city," the billowy-coat guy says. "Got kind of turned around."
You would try to find something to say, but at that moment the coolest, most soothing balm you’ve ever felt is smoothed into your hurt wrist. "Hold still," Anya says, not that you were going to move. "And, honey, it doesn’t matter about Angel’s failure to perform, because he’d have just made a bigger mess in this nice lounge. Champions, you know."
"Yes, champions are such messy sombitches," the lawyer-cowboy says mock-seriously.
The billowy-coat guy stands. Doesn’t speak. He doesn't need to, you think.
"In any event, miss, we’re terribly sorry for the...er, everything," Rupert says. He’s leaning heavily on the cane now, but he’s got his sangfroid back – manners, old-fashioned and perfect. "Is there anything we can do for you?"
"I think you’ve done it," you say weakly.
"You sure? Are you waiting for someone?" Anya says as she wipes her fingers on a cloth from her bag.
No, you say awkwardly, it’s your night out. Business triumph, out of town trip, expense account...
"Well, congratulations, darlin’! Would you mind a little company for a while, just to make sure you’re safe and all? We faithfully promise not to put you in thrall or endanger you," the lawyer-cowboy says. He waits until you nod – weakly again – before sitting down and kicking out the remaining chair. "Park it, Angel. Oh, and, darlin’, I’m Lindsey."
You wouldn’t believe that a brooding billowy-coat guy would be named Angel, but then this has been a strange evening all around.
A business card is slapped down on the table in front of you. Magic Places, it says in Gothic script. Oh. Magic.
"I think these two bozos can be trusted," Anya says. "But if one of them gets out of line, you just call this number and we’ll come back and rescue you again."
Rupert’s got his arm around Anya’s waist – more for love than for stability, you think. When he smiles at you, you get the oddest feeling of safety. "That’s right. And, er, enjoy your success, yes?"
You watch them walk slowly back toward the elevator. No, they’re strolling, like it’s just an ordinary Thursday night together. When they get to the elevator, she takes his hat and arranges it just so on his head, and then he bends down to kiss her –
The crowd, oblivious to magic or love, shifts like a great beast, and you can’t see Rupert and Anya any more.
But when you turn back, there’s Lindsey smiling, and Angel. Your wrist is throbbing gently, not really hurting at all. Underneath your feet, the floor is vibrating. Just another incremental move along the circle, taking you back to where you started – slightly different view, different lights, glow and sprawl and big dark world outside. The Angel of Death’s dancing somewhere, but not here.
"Champagne?" you say.
You’re on an expense account, and the sky’s the limit.