Chapter 1: Light Up That Dark Place
Shilo woke up in the helicopter some time after leaving the island. How pleasant it was for both of them to have her waking up in Graverobber’s arms after sweet and peaceful dreams. Her wig was crooked, obscuring her pretty face. He smoothed the wig and then cupped her cheek, stroking his thumb on her jawline. They’d left Sanitarium Island forever, for good, to go across the sea of bodies and water for something better. Graverobber had elected to abandon his independent but ultimately isolated life to be with her and, so far as he could tell, it was worth it. It had been worth it, waiting for someone like her to come into his life, give herself to him in every way that a girl could. He hoped that he could give as much back and show that he was worth it. They’d both sacrificed with what they’d been through. Her father, Mag, Dizzy; their influences and deaths had cut little scars on her heart, and still her whole happiness didn’t rely on Graverobber. She loved him, and yet could stand on her own two feet. He loved her for that.
Once she’d fallen asleep, he’d fixed headphones over both their ears so they could talk over the din of the copter blades and comprehend the words. He didn’t expect silence on the way to wherever they were going.
She cast quiet, dark eyes up at him from where her head rested on his shoulder. His arm loosened. “No, keep it there,” she mumbled, drowsy. Neither of them moved. A yawn escaped and shortly thereafter infected him. “Was I out long?”
“We stopped to fuel up in the middle of our destination path and then went on our merry way.” She nodded her comprehension and blinked, moved her hand to idly stroke his chest. “How’d you sleep?” he asked.
“I dreamed of a field and it was dark but I wasn’t scared. There were wildflowers and trees. I’ve never seen anything like it except in books. Think they’ll have them over there?” she wondered, snuggling closer to him. He wanted to extricate himself, not used to the intimacy. He loved her but he still wanted his own space.
“Could be. Don’t get your hopes up, kid.” Another yawn and he stretched out his arms, successfully gaining room. ‘Sides, they weren’t exactly alone. When they were alone, he’d do more than hold her. Graverobber relished the thought, the images. Not too long ago, he’d thought sleeping with her was a mistake. No one, save a saint or eunuch, could resist a begging young girl and he had no doubt that, given proper encouragement, she would beg.
“Oh, I won’t. Even if it’s nothing but cacti and tumbleweeds, I’ll be pleased,” she said. “Anything’s better than what we left.”
A world of the dead, a world where he had a steady living and she had real influence, but she was right. That old world would crumble or survive regardless of her actions, so why drag her down to its level? There wasn’t a place for Shilo in that decay.
Shilo crawled across his lap to look out his window even though there was a perfectly good window on her side. “The sky looks like paint,” she said. “Was it this clear at home?”
He took advantage of the situation by looking up her skirt and lightly spanking her. She snapped her gaze in his direction. “Hey!”
“Sorry, sorry,” he said, grinning.
“You’re a creep, you know that?” She smoothed her ruffled skirt and moved back to her seat, clearing the fog on the window to look out.
“So stop it!” The minx smiled. “For now.”
“Deal. Check your pockets.”
With confusion displayed on her furrowed brow, she said “What?” He repeated himself and the baffled girl stuck her hands in her pocket. “What…?” Fingers wrapped the prize and withdrew it from the sweater. In her hands was a necklace he’d sneaked there just after they’d left; a silver circlet with a blood red sapphire at the heart of it. She gasped. He took it from her and swept her unreal hair aside.
“I saw this on a dead woman—,” he started.
“What?! Graves, that’s revolting!”
“And bought a replica. Took all that I had and then some.” He placed it carefully around her throat and took the time to murmur in her ear, “You can thank me later.”
Gone was her mother’s cameo, representing her dark past. He wanted to take her mind far from that, as abandoned as her old home. She touched the necklace. “It’s beautiful. Too gorgeous for me.”
“Nah. It suits you.”
She grinned and eagerly went into chatter on how she’d been able to take most of her belongings with her, and how she could meet a President, who apparently was important, and how there would be adventures just for the two of them. He contributed a little but mostly let her talk, and boy did she have a lot to say. To his credit, not once did he tune out. Eventually, he put a finger to her lips and asked if he could tell her something.
“What is it, Graves?”
“You’re sure there’ll be room for me in all this talk of change?”
“Why wouldn’t there be? You left for me. I won’t ever let you go.”
Reassured, he put his feet up and waited for the ride to end. At last, they made it to a proper stop, a light in the dark place in the form of a white lighthouse sending out light in a half-circle across the waters and surrounded by a rocky shore. It was conveniently fitted with a small port big enough for the copter to coast into. The pilot navigated their craft inside, came to a smooth landing, and the blades slowed and shuddered and stopped. Through it all, Shilo tightly squeezed her knees, presumably terrified that they’d crash and burn. When it was over, Graverobber patted her shoulder.
“You alright?” he asked.
She nodded. “Yeah.”
“We all good back there?” the pilot checked. Graverobber said they were, and Shilo mutely nodded. “Great. Get out. I’ll follow y’all later; gotta check the equipment.”
The door opened into a dim garage. Shilo stuck to Graverobber’s side like chewing gum under a shoe. A lantern light shone through slats in a large mechanical door, operated by a panel in the wall. Graverobber hit the panel and warily watched the door open, pushing Shilo back behind him. “Who’s there?”
A bent over old fellow was on the other side, holding a lantern with a gnarled arm. He scowled, his glassy eyes scrutinizing them both. “You the Wallaces?” he asked.
“I’m a Wallace,” Shilo said, stepping out and offering her hand. He looked at it and then at Graverobber. “This is my friend.”
“That so?” He sighed. “Well, there’s room for two. You’ll be spending the night here, and then someone will see to you. Don’t ask who cause I haven’t the faintest idea.” Raising his lantern to see them better, he sniffed disapprovingly. “So this is Miss Wallace. Can’t say I’m impressed. Ah well. Follow me.” He turned and began his walk, taking them down what seemed to be endless winding stairs. They finally stopped, Shilo out of breath, at a small room fitted with cupboards and a table with five unsturdy chairs. “Get yerself something to eat. I’ll come back when the arrangements are done.”
He went away and left them in the dark. “Graverobber, I’m scared of the dark,” Shilo hissed, stumbling on a chair.
“Wait.” He searched in his pocket and struck a match, found a candle on the table and lit it, cupping his hand until the flame was steady. “What a piece of work, huh, kid?”
“He doesn’t like us much.” She sat on the table, not trusting the chairs. “What’s in the cupboards?”
He checked. “Oh, sundries.” He tossed her a baguette and a plastic container of red jelly. “There. Make yourself something nice.”
Graverobber continued looking and found a bag of jerky. They were surprised at their hunger and split the food, sating their appetites. Shilo had to be told what jerky was. They found bottles of water and he could’ve sworn it tasted cleaner than the water back on the island. It made sense. That water had to be contaminated by industrial run-off and the ever present dead.
Shilo burped and looked appalled. “I’m sorry!”
He laughed and reached over to tap her on the head. “I’ll forgive you this time.” To one-up her, he chugged what was left of his water and sat back in his chair. The belch he let out was impressive.
Shilo cracked up and bent across the table to grab his ears and press her nose to his, wiggling. “You’re adorable.”
“Kid, you can’t call a man adorable. It isn’t done.” And he stole a kiss, eventually hauling her onto his lap, knocking aside everything they’d had on the table. The floor creaked. The creepy old man was back, clearing his throat. Needless to say, they stopped in their tracks.
“If you’re quite finished, your lodgings are prepared,” the codger said.
“Oh. Oh, that’s great,” Shilo said, getting off the table, flashing quite a bit of leg in the process.
Further down the stairs he led them, no sign of the pilot behind them, and even with the lantern’s light, it was awfully dark. They were taken to a wooden door.
“Bed’s big enough for two,” the man sniffed. “One night, understand?” And before either of them could speak, he left them there, by the door.
“What’s with the stick up his ass?” Shilo grumbled.
“Think he has skeletons in his closet?”
“Oh, yeah. Tons. That’s why he keeps us in the dark.”
In the dark, he pushed her against the door and kissed her neck, tasted the silver that he’d put there. “Still scared, Shilo?”
Her pulse beat hard and fast. “A little.”
“Good.” He reached behind her and turned the knob, giving her room to steady herself so she wouldn’t fall when it opened. A candelabra by the door, how thoughtful. He lit it. There was, indeed, a bed. Again, he turned on her, closing the door shut behind her and looming. “Now, where were we?”
Chapter 2: Mandates
The kisses came hard and fast, lightning bolts of adrenaline shooting through Shilo’s veins, lancing down her spine. They’d been kissing not five minutes ago and still this seemed new, exciting, and dangerous. Was it the dark, she wondered, or how he had her backed up against the door, his hands caressing the back of her neck, grabbing at her shoulders, or how the full length of his body was pressed into hers, applying pressure in just the right places. She moaned into his mouth and attempted to place her arms around him, only partially succeeding. Graverobber turned her about, grinning at how she had to stand up on tiptoe to continue the kiss. “Eager, aren’t we,” he murmured.
“You have no idea,” she said, resting on her heels and breathing heavily, trying to regain what he’d knocked out of her lungs. “Am I the only one?”
With a perverse leer, he said, “By no means,” and took her hand, bringing it down, below his belt. She blushed and made no attempt to pull back. “You think that one time would be enough for me? I’ve an appetite for you…”
Shilo couldn’t look him in the eye, her stomach full of butterflies and everything beneath filled with hot sparks. She could feel herself getting wet and wasn’t sure whether to feel embarrassed. Then he was kissing her, and her hand was lightly massaging him through the fabric. He lost some focus on what he was doing, she could tell that much, and her murmur was soft and pleased. She withdrew her hand, her smile shy while inwardly she relished his disappointed expression.
“Come on, Graves, you think I’d do this standing up?” She pointed at the bed. “Oh, and you’ll have to wait a minute. I have to use the lady’s.”
“Goddamn cocktease,” he groaned, smacking her ass as she walked away. She jumped and squeaked, saying that wasn’t going to get things going any faster. When she came back, he pushed her onto the bed, saying he had to tidy up his makeup.
She laughed. “Are you fucking serious?” She took advantage of the time by taking off her wig, tossing it on the ground, shortly followed by her clothes. Naked, she wriggled under the covers. Graverobber reappeared, paint reapplied. He was shocked at the sight that awaited him, and slowly walked toward the bed and started to unbuckle his belt.
“What did I do to deserve this?” he asked.
“You mean what did you do to deserve me,” she corrected, sitting up and exposing her breasts when the blanket dropped.
“Yes. That. Sorry. Brain… not doing so hot,” he said, and knelt on the bed. He rested his hand on the back of her head, fingers running through the short brown hair. “Soft, as is the rest of you.”
“You don’t need to compliment me; I’m already naked in a bed, waiting for you to do devious things to me,” she pointed out, and reached up, dragging him properly onto the bed, on top of her. Granted, there was a sheet between them, but she could feel him all the same as they lay on the bed. While she explored his mouth, she caressed his back, running her hands low enough to push up under his shirt. “Oh, I love you,” she said. “I love you, I love--,” cut off by a sharp gasp when his hand delved under the blanket and moved between her legs.
“That so?” he breathed. “Oh, yeah, that’s love I’m feeling?” In a quick motion, before she could reply or even register what he’d said, his caresses changed and he pushed two fingers inside her. She moaned, moreso as he demonstrated his capabilities in that respect, and she moved her hips in gentle circles, squeezing his hand between her thighs. He leaned forward to say in her ear “I can’t wait to fuck you.”
Biting her lip to keep from making those high and staccato gasps constantly at the quick, insistent movements, she found herself begging, as if on instinct, “Oh, please, please!”
“Please, what?” he said, stilling inside her. It was agony.
“Please, please fuck me,” she said breathlessly. “You—you have to.”
“Yeah, suppose I do.” And he withdrew his fingers, raising them to his dark lips and sucking hard, looking right into her eyes. The girl shivering beneath him pulled the sheet all the way down. He thanked her for the assistance, kissing her cheek before reaching for his zip. She took his hand and guided it down, eased his jeans off. Graverobber removed his boots, throwing them aside and reaching for her again. He held her close, letting her feel him on her leg.
“Graverobber… It isn’t nice to tease me,” she said.
“Wait’s almost over, promise,” he said, nuzzling her neck, then lightly nipping at the skin. He sat up and reached for his jeans, shoving his hand into one pocket, then the other, a frown alighting on his whitened face. “Fuck.”
“What—what is it?” Shilo asked.
He turned to look at her, a disappointed scowl. “No protection.”
“What? Come on, you’ve gotta be joking.” She latched onto his arm, her body insisting to her brain that she needed him right that moment, damn it, condom or no. Shilo laid her head on his forearm and turned her head to look up at Graverobber’s face with a pitiful, wanting moue. “Aren’t you?”
“Wish I was, kid.” He clicked his tongue on his teeth and paused as if in thought. He carefully detached her hand and pushed her on top of the covers. Shilo was astonished at his sudden dominance. She liked it. He crawled over her and smooched her mouth and descended, planting soft kisses on her milk white throat, her clavicle, her right breast and her nipple—and she protested softly when he refused to stay there—and lowering to her stomach. Shilo had a slight inkling of what was to come next, and she blushed, lying in wait as Graverobber snaked his body down, to place his chin low on her stomach and kiss next to her belly button. “There’s other ways, kid.”
Her voice shaking, she asked what he meant.
“Don’t play the innocent virgin with me, Shilo.” His smirk made her insides contort into complicated knots. How dare he toy with her and make her wait! Shilo rubbed her thighs together, desperate to ease the pressure without writhing. It took her by surprise when his hands wandered up to her knees and spread her legs wide. She gasped at the cold air.
Lifting one of her lanky legs to splay over his shoulder, Graverobber ducked his head down and kissed her, kissed somewhere she’d never thought anyone would. Her fingers clenched and she bit down on her lip to keep from crying out. His tongue traced her, flicked out in just the right places, and this was the most pleasure she’d ever felt. She whimpered, moving her flailing hands to his hair.
His little moans against her made her shudder, her grip pulling him a little closer. It was as if he’d done this before… and, given his history, it was likely he had, enough to have this skill. Once she’d grown used to the sensation, and adjusted her thoughts to accept that this was happening and they were both enjoying this, she tried to focus enough to control her actions and not shiver and quake and lie there. It was fun to tug at his hair, to force his head further between her thighs and her leg further over his shoulder, and she didn’t hold back noises anymore. Her cries filled the room, and when she felt him gently suck at something she didn’t even know was there, her hips automatically fluttered up.
Graverobber paused to grin at her. “Yeah, atta girl.”
“I—,” she tried, really tried, but he had other ideas, and all her senses but ecstasy were rendered obsolete by mandate of his wicked, wonderful tongue. She crooned, moving her hips like he’d encouraged her to, and he rewarded her efforts by lapping at her with each upward motion; her fingers and toes and spine were all writhing, her noises alternating between moans and choked gasps, and again he was sucking, and her breath was skyrocketing, harsher and shallower with each passing second.
It happened because of the two of them in conjunction, working together, by the thrusts and give and take of this new dimension of sex, and when it did happen, when the fuse of her orgasm was lit, her hands clenched in his long hair and her hips careened, and Shilo cried out. Graverobber patiently let her hold on and ride out her pleasure; she slackened, let go of him, and let her legs straighten. With a contented sigh, Graverobber grasped and kissed her thigh. Her hand lazily rested on his hair, smoothing it. His mouth was wet on her skin, and she blushed, pondering where that mouth had just been. The gradually fading pulsing in her body made her sigh, and the lazy comfort following climax settled in. Graverobber rested beside her, stroking a breast, idling her nipple between two fingers.
“How was that? Been a while,” he said. All she could do was shakily sigh. “Was it that good?”
Catching her breath, she said, “Yes.”
Shortly after deciding that she should return the favor and ease poor Graverobber’s discomfort, it occurred to them to check his coat pockets for rubbers. They found several in a stolen wallet, and they both laughed, Shilo in relief. She wanted to please him but was a little worried that he’d end up choking her. He didn’t have to ask permission; she wrapped and pulled him in herself, using her muscles to shatter his focus like his tongue had done to her. She rubbed at his back, sighing softly with each hard thrust. It was so good to have him inside her, natural, easy. The thrusts grew closer together, and Shilo found herself gasping. She was pretty sure this couldn’t happen twice, but her body was saying otherwise.
She didn’t know what she was thinking. None of it made sense, and a year ago she’d be appalled at the image of herself naked on her back with a much older man thrusting into her. Now it made perfect sense, and she wanted nights like this to play out over time. Graverobber purred something unintelligible, the hum reverberating through Shilo’s body. He kissed her neck hard and slid his hand down to rub at her between thrusts until she was whining and moving right along with him, desperate to reach a second high. It struck like a firework, making her shake and shudder and wail. Graverobber’s breath was hot on her neck as she felt the pleasure ebb, and she had a few moments to lie there and feel him without thought before he seized up and ground harder than ever. Relaxed, he pulled out and all but collapsed on her, resting his full weight on her breast. Shilo touched a bead of sweat on his brow and thought about where all he’d left traces of make-up. He hadn’t fucked her like this the time before, or attended to her so thoroughly. All things considered, she was lucky. She loved someone who showed part of his love by touching her in all the right ways.
They fell asleep much like that, after tending to certain private things. Shilo replaced her wig before getting back in bed and into Graverobber’s arms. She whispered that she loved him. He hadn’t said it back just yet. In the morning, he wanted to continue the previous night’s affairs. Laughing her half-hearted protests, Shilo batted at him sliding his hand under her nightgown, grinning at her.
“Oh, come on, it won’t take long…”
It wasn’t until he’d reached her underwear that the door was rudely thrown open.
Chapter 3: Leaving the Light
Shilo gasped and yanked the sheets up to cover herself and where Graverobber’s wandering hand had frozen. The whiplash of teasing fun to embarrassment was dizzying, and her eyes gradually took in exactly who had barged in. It wasn’t the old man, stooped and disapproving, his arthritic hand clutching at the door, and it wasn’t the friendly pilot with the mild accent. Instead, she saw a man in a gabardine suit and shiny red bowler. He was middle-aged, dignified, and appalled, taking a step back, one gloved hand going to his eyes.
“By all means, take a moment to compose yourselves,” he entreated them, and Shilo hastily batted away the hand between her thighs and got out of the bed, too flustered to take notice of what her bedmate was doing. She heard him rustling and assumed he was shuffling back into his pants. Shilo tucked her hands into her armpits, crossing her arms over her underdeveloped breasts. The fabric of her nightgown was unforgivably thin, and Shilo had an old-fashioned, high degree of shyness.
“Haven’t you heard of knocking?” Graverobber grumbled. Shilo could have hit him. A sideways glance showed that he was fully dressed, although his makeup was spotty in places, the lipstick obviously blurred from kissing, and his hair was disheveled. She felt like apologizing for sleeping with him even though they’d only been provided with one bed. Trembling under the stranger’s eyes, she tried to shake the feeling and instead show her resolve and hellish attitude. Pretend he’s your dad, she told herself.
“I thought the young lady would be dressed by now. It is almost noon.” The man checked his watch, projecting the time for them to see.
Graverobber had ambled behind Shilo and draped her sweater over her shoulders. “Give us a minute.”
“No time. Dress on the way,” the man said, beckoning them on. Shilo hastily grabbed her clothes in a bundle in her arms and followed, Graverobber mumbling behind her that it was all bullshit. “You’re late enough as it is.”
They had a moment’s pause while closing the door, and she took advantage of that moment to finish dressing, even if it was in front of a stranger and therefore embarrassing. “Late? To what?” Shilo asked, sliding into her skirt, Graverobber helping her snap and secure her bra before tugging the nightgown over her head.
“There is a boat and then an automobile waiting to take you the rest of the way to the mainland; the capitol, to be exact. We are on a schedule, after all. Or did you think this was a pleasure visit to be determined at your leisure? Come along, come along,” they were told, and his pace increased. Shilo felt like Alice, chasing after the elusive white rabbit.
“Wait, wait!” she pleaded, hurrying. Even at this hour, the tower was dark and terrifying, and at this speed, she couldn’t hold Graverobber’s hand for comfort and balance. All she could do was descend and hope her feet didn’t give way and send her toppling all the way down.
She stumbled and caught herself on the wall at about the same time as a cold hand snatched her collar. A gasp escaped her lips. “Easy there, kid.” He straightened her out and planted a kiss to her throat, squeezed her shaking shoulders. She stooped to pick up the belongings that had spilled from her arms.
“I hate the dark,” she said.
“If I’d known, I’d have kept one last vial of Z.”
“You couldn’t have known.” With that, they kept on, slower this time, down, down, down. He shouted down at the stranger, “Hey, who the fuck are you?”
The stairs, the sickening spiraling stairs, came to a halt on the next floor. “Name isn’t important. I am a government representative, and it’s my job to shepherd you from this abyss to the capitol, where the important people are,” he said condescendingly. Shilo withdrew to the safety of Graverobber’s chest as if slapped.
“No need to be an asshole,” Graverobber said.
The man bit his lip and pondered. “No, you’re right. I blame the decaf.”
Just when she’d started to wonder where he was, the caretaker approached, a set of keys on one crooked finger, a long, stuffed bag over his shoulder. She stared at it as the representative was given the keys. Curiously, she asked, “What’s in there?”
“You want to know?” the old man wheezed.
She nodded. He dropped the bag onto the floor and unzipped the top; a decapitated head popped out, the bloody incision through the throat imprecise, as if sawed. Through her horrified shrieks, she realized it was the pilot. “Close it, close it!” she cried.
Graverobber grabbed the caretaker by the throat and lifted him up in the air. “The hell is wrong with you?” he snarled.
“Had the filth of the island on him,” the geezer gasped. “Couldn’t risk contami—contamination.” His legs weakly kicked. Shilo shouted for Graverobber to put him down, right now. He sighed and resentfully did so.
“You didn’t kill us,” she pointed out, her voice quaking. “We could be contaminated, for all you know.”
“We wouldn’t kill an honored guest,” said the representative, adding, “Or her… bodyguard.” There was a distasteful tone to it, a spitting out of something foul. Graverobber scowled. Shilo meekly said that he was her friend.
Like hell I am, Graverobber said to himself. He’d never had a friend who he actually made love to and then held all through the night. That was somewhat out of friendship territory. Was she ashamed of him? He tried to suppress the thought.
“He didn’t need to die. He was a good person,” she sniffled.
“It was an unnecessary measure,” said the government man. “But, alas, too late to remedy. Shall we go?” He reached out and put a hand on Shilo’s shoulder, turning her from the body. She let herself be steered. The keys were the way out. The old man zipped up the bag and continued to drag it. Shilo shuddered, and Graverobber merely shrugged it off. So long as it wasn’t him, cold-blooded murder was nothing to cry about. Death happened, for some sooner rather than later. “The road waits.”
He fit the key into the door and pushed the way out. Outside, they could hear the waves crash on the rocks, smell the salt spray, and the sunshine fell down, blessings from the clear blue sky. He’d never seen anything like it. There was sand and grass mingled on the ground, both damp from the water. There awaited, on the far end from where they’d arrived, a small boat. Shilo anxiously asked what about her things, what about her luggage.
“It’s been decontaminated and packed on,” the man said with a nod to the craft. Boats were something Graverobber had only seen occasionally, useless canoe-like structures that lovers and families used around the island, though blocked by the mountains of bodies. Other than that, he’d spied glimpses on television and in old books, and he wasn’t much of a reader or watcher. Not unless it involved watching young girls in short skirts.
A heavyset woman who didn’t speak operated the boat while Graverobber paced the deck. Shilo was bent over the railing, seasick and absolutely miserable. Nauseated in spite of the pleasant weather. It wasn’t much of a trip; they reached the dock in just over an hour, and in the meantime he tried to distract her by pointing out the fish and the strange, glistening creatures that poked their heads up to watch them pass.
“What’re they called?” she wondered.
Walking by, the government man said, “Sea lions.”
Graverobber didn’t know what to make of that, nor did his dark-eyed young companion.
He made sure she didn’t fall when alighting from the boat, and in truth he also stumbled, compensating for the transition to a solid surface. Secured, they went on, and at once four men in white coats and paper masks covering their noses and mouths came up with what looked like scanners. “Don’t move,” the representative advised them. “Or this may sting.”
Shilo froze at once, and Graverobber came to a stop, holding his hands up to the level of his ears. They were circled, scanners passed over them—except they clearly weren’t scanners. Something hot and electric crackled along his skin. His extremities felt numb. What the fuck? Shilo turned her head to watch the men at work.
“Just making sure you aren’t infected,” one said, voice muffled.
“We’re clean, alright?” Graverobber said.
“So you are,” he concluded, and the four of them put away their strange devices. Graverobber experimentally moved his foot. They’d singed him or something; he could smell burnt hair and lightning.
He tried to take Shilo’s hand, but she was ahead of him, walking with the strange, suited man to the parking lot, where a limousine was parked. He said that he’d called ahead. There wasn’t much to look at so far, just an empty parking lot and a sort of toll booth where the men in white coats waited for new arrivals. Those couldn’t come often. Graverobber figured they’d been dragged out just for this occasion.
“After you,” said the representative to Shilo. He let himself in and nearly closed the door on Graverobber. She didn’t seem to notice. A window was knocked on; the drive began, smooth and steady.
Gradually, the hinterlands, the long road with nothing but green desert and telephone lines and the occasional house tucked into a cradle of mountains, faded into tunnels. Those were pitch black, and Graverobber heard Shilo’s breath stop, heard her long exhalation when they passed into the light before heading into the next one.
And then the lights began. It was about five in the afternoon, and the sun was setting on the horizon, and they passed from nothingness into everything, a city that reminded him of home but different. Clean, dazzling, all manner of lights. Uneasily, he noted that the streets had been empty, cordoned off for everyone but them, and there were cameras on the buildings, turning to focus on them. He noticed, too, a camera mounted on the interior of the limousine. Shilo, who’d not talked to him hardly at all on the sojourn, had her eyes peeled to the outside world, at the glittering skyscrapers and the clean streets. He doubted the city entire was this beautiful. It had been set up to impress her.
“Oh, Graverobber, can you believe it?” she breathed.
“Yeah, I’m all aflutter.” And, with that, he reached forward and poured himself a tall glass of champagne, and then another.
Chapter 4: New Landscapes
They’d been in the car for over a day, culminating in a drive through an endless city. Graverobber was loathe to spend even another minute in the contraption when the tiresome journey came to an end. The door far from him opened; the representative stepped out first and tapped his foot on the gleaming silver pavement. The sun was gone, replaced by a million stars. A wide-eyed Shilo let herself be guided out with a touch of the glove on her shoulder. She did not shy from the light physical guide, whereas it had taken Graverobber weeks for her to grow accustomed to the same treatment from him.
“Welcome to the capitol,” the representative said with a wide flourish.
“Where are we going?” he asked, thinking he’d be ignored even as he stood with his whole impressive height from the vehicle.
“Shilo—it is Shilo, is it not?—needs to be cleaned up.” Shilo confirmed with a nod that she was her name.
“She’s not dirty,” Graverobber laughed, as if he could possibly sully her. As if anything could sully her.
“Young ladies like shopping. I’m sure we’ll hear no protests from the young lady, but why don’t we ask her?” the man said patronizingly. They both turned to Shilo.
She looked from one face to the other, hesitant. “Can I get new boots? Mine are worn through.” The representative said that they could, no problem. She grasped Graverobber’s sleeve. He tried unsuccessfully for her hand, or at the very least her wrist. There was a brush of fingers before she blushed and shied away, curling her hand protectively away. Why was she doing this? Had he done something wrong? The girl had been loving and enthusiastic the night before, and the night before that.
The streets were impressive even up close, with moving sections on the sidewalk and newfangled cars zipping through the streets with hums instead of roars. The buildings were all glass and white and silver shine, geometric pieces stacked one on top of the other and joined by catwalks, escalators, fire escapes. He noted the sensors and cameras above that seemed to follow them and almost made note of them to Shilo. Not wanting to create panic or paranoia, or alert the representative that he was aware of the mechanized attention, he kept it to himself but kept a wary eye on them, not liking this in the slightest. Say what you will about the demented island, there was at least some degree of privacy. It was in walking distance, the shop where Shilo was to be “cleaned up.” It was not like any shop that he’d ever stepped foot in or seen, not some hole-in-the-wall or boutique. They stepped into a great hall, fine clothes packed into the walls and displayed on mannequins, with stairs leading up to a second floor. There were red, porcelain hands creeping up from marble tables, and they displayed jewelry, hats, tattoos, held shoes aloft. Shilo stood stock still, taking it all in.
Graverobber couldn’t help but be a tad impressed. Next to all this, he was well aware of his own appearance and felt proud of the raggedy distinction. His hair was uncombed, his face painted, his clothes filthy, and his swagger did not falter in the face of riches. Hell, he was better than the peacocks filtering by, thumbing at the wares with overly clean hands. Even Amber Sweet had been imperfect.
These people barely had pores.
The girl did not seem to know where to start. A short man in a silk shirt and pressed pants came up; the government man said a few words in an aside to him, and things happened very quickly. The representative went outside, sternly telling Graverobber to stay put, as he needed to be made presentable as well. Bah, what nonsense. Graverobber made a face at him soon as his back was turned.
A few salesmen and women came to Shilo’s side and whisked her toward a changing booth and sent a dress sailing over the top, no doubt hitting her in the head. They retreated to make preparations for the rest of the somewhat unwilling makeover. She protested the dress and went quiet, replacing her ignored words with the rustling of fabric. “Graverobber!” she called, and he strolled over, pushing past the sales.
“They knew my size,” she mumbled. “Get in here.”
She unlocked the door and tugged him in. He gave a sideways glance and gave in with little protest, grinning. Graverobber was sure to lock the door behind him, not caring to be interrupted with her yet again. “Hey, kid.” The kid stood frowning in her white bra and underwear. “You look good. What’s it been, five minutes?”
“Cute, very cute.” Shilo backed up to the cubby-sized bench provided, built into the wall, not sitting. Her clothes hung on hooks, the provided dress crumbled on the floor. “How did they know my size? Isn’t this all slightly… strange?”
He heaved a sigh of relief. “Yes. I am relieved to hear that.” Distracted by her state of undress, he reached out and curled a hand on the side of her neck, moving to the back of her head and bending to lay a kiss on her lips. She pushed back. “What’s the matter?”
“We can’t. Not here,” she whispered, eyes downcast. “I’m sorry. It’s not decent, okay?”
“Oh, but I can’t help it. Decency don’t matter, not when you’re like this…” He lifted her and pressed her against the wall. “Tell me no.” And he very softly kissed her neck, taking her off guard. She’d been expecting something rougher, and still she blushed. “Wish we could be alone again.”
“But we’re not,” she said pointedly, and he relented with a sigh.
“You have a point.”
“As do you,” she murmured, looking down.
“Alright, kid, that’s enough. Let’s get you dressed.” The dress wasn’t what he thought it would be. They’d not picked anything sexy or flashy. It was dark red, pooled at her feet, completed by a trailing fabric attached to the lower end of her back. The Mandarin collar was high, arching up her throat. She asked how she looked, turning slowly for him. He wondered how it was possible for her not to know the answer already. It was stupidly obvious, to him at least. “Beautiful,” he breathed. Unlocking the door, he unceremoniously and without any warning shoved her out. “Go get pretty.”
“I am pretty!” she laughed before falling into the clutches of beauticians. “Hey, leave my wig alone!” And they did leave that much alone, at her repeated insistence. Brushes and blushes and eyelash curlers and foundation, Shilo was made up to look several years older and not nearly as wan.
Graverobber, in the meantime, was grabbed by a pushy salesman. “Hm, now what do we do about you? Oh, this simply will not do!” the fellow simpered.
“Hey, keep your hands off me,” Graverobber snapped.
“Oh, Graves, just go with it. It’s kind of fun,” Shilo said, now having her nails done and clearly enjoying herself. He grumbled and gave in. But he would not be tamed. His makeup was left alone—the better to hide his imperfections, they said—but his hair was combed out and tied tightly back. He’d threatened to cut off the man’s manhood if he took a scissors to his mane.
“No, oh no. No suit,” he said.
Exasperated, the now freed up staff turned their eyes on his keeper for help. The polished and primped Shilo smiled and took the square package from the table and kicked open an empty dressing room door. “Come on in.”
“Why should I?” he asked, sensing a trap.
“It could be fun,” she said, an undertone that only he could detect. He was drawn in after the well dressed young girl. She pushed him back, shutting the door with the impact. The lock clicked automatically. “Take everything off.” She helped him undress and uncover it all. With each article of clothing removed, Shilo rewarded him with kisses and caresses. She didn’t tame him, he argued. This was for her benefit, and he’d get something out of it later for being so cooperative, of that he was sure. “See? You’ll look nice.”
“There’s nothing wrong with how I look.”
“It’s a change, that’s all. We’re ourselves, still.” She squeezed his hand and sat down to watch him shake his head ruefully and then dress. He had some trouble with the tie and required help from Shilo. In her new boots, with heels high enough to keep her from stumbling on her dress, she came right up to him, stood on tiptoe, and fastened the tie, pulling it snug. “Nothing’s going to really change us.”
“No, I know that. How is it you know how to do that and I don’t?” he mused.
“Daddy,” she answered simply.
The small party left the store to reunite with the limousine waiting at the curb. The car was flanked by two armored vehicles; security for the guest who’d traveled so far at the behest of one influential man. It would be a shame for something to happen to her to disrupt those plans. If Shilo was surprised by this, she did not show it; perhaps one of the beauticians had whispered word of it to her. Graverobber scarcely recognized his pale companion, injected with new life by cosmetics and a dress that made him loathe to put his hands on her for fear of creasing the fine silk. Gold strings wove through her dark, synthetic hair, and the bleary eyeliner was a crisp black line beneath gold lids. On the slender hand that touched his knee were rings, her original silver and additional coils of lavender, turquoise, plum, and they all connected to a simple silver bracelet. His eyes roamed over the details, trying hard to be unimpressed. Shilo was, of course, more beautiful without embellishments, without anything on her at all, including that wig. A briefing was in order, clearly more for Shilo’s benefit than his own. The government man pulled out a leather folder and removed from it a series of files and index cards illustrated with photographs. With a mighty stroke of his elbow, he cut Graverobber from their line of sight, scooting closer to Shilo and introducing various important individuals by face and name: President, Vice President, people of Congress, noteworthy reporters.
“You’ll be expected to act with grace,” he said. “You will address people by their titles or as ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am.’ And, of course, it would be inappropriate for either of you to be inebriated at this event.”
“And, um, just what is this event?” Shilo asked.
“A meeting,” he said.
“A cotillion,” Graverobber chimed in, earning a sharp glare. “A place where their new pet can be paraded.”
“Oh, can’t you ever shut up?” Shilo asked. “Everything’s going to be fine. Don’t be so surly.” She held his arm and tucked her head to his chest, smiling. He petted her arm, assuaged his restless thoughts by the soft sensation on his palm.
He could shut up, and so kept quiet for the rest of the drive.
People circulated with drinks in hand, dispensed by a greeter in white at the door after passing through mechanical security. Like Shilo, they didn’t look opera-level swanky, but classic and understatedly elegant. Those with surgical modifications weren’t obvious. Not even Graverobber, with his experienced eyes, could pick them out of the many. All were beautiful. It could have been anyone, and perhaps it was everyone. Off the island, without risk of repossession, it was likely more folks opted for genetic perfection. Only a knife’s cut away, step up ye bland mortals. The style here was unfamiliar, goggles and gears, hoopskirts and gold boots up to the knee. Even indoors, ladies carried parasols, and near every man carried a cane, and these were the diplomats, the political representatives of a society that was as foreign to him as childbirth.
“Look at them all,” Shilo said, stepping forward, boots shuddering on the wood, threatening to scuff the surface. “Have you ever seen anything like it?”
He admired the pictures on the paneled walls, soft landscapes: hunters on horseback in pursuit of frightened foxes; women in bonnets lounging on green hills; sexless, ageless figures running along a beach that was sunny with clear and pale blue water. Each image offered life and light shed onto a clean slate. This world had a new beauty in it. His world had been beautiful, the colorful arrays of addicts and emperors, and here was a different brand of loveliness. Shilo examined a picture, her mouth open in a wondering sigh.
The government representative who’d disappeared at the door reemerged at their elbows. Shilo turned about, eyes wide, stance hesitant. He cleared his throat. “Miss Wallace, they’re ready for you.”
“Oh. Who—who is?” she asked, wringing her hands.
“The President. He’s most anxious to meet you. But first, there are other very important people. I do hope you remember their names, for dignity’s sake. Come along.” He smiled and brushed a hand through the air to indicate her path, but not the destination. To Graverobber, he beamed and said “I see you’re admiring the oil paintings! Classic, are they not? There are more to see in the vestibule!” The hand suddenly on Graverobber’s forearm was surprisingly strong, taking him aback.
“No, I’d like to go with my friend,” Graverobber said, hating the feel of the word in his mouth while knowing it would get him farther than, say, lover or fuckdoll. Alas, Shilo was walking, drawn forward, and as if on cue people were closing the gap, blocking his view of her and where she went to. “Hands off.”
“You will want to see, I assure you,” the bully said, guiding him along. Feeling more helpless than he had when strung up toe-end up, and Shilo had to come and rescue him, he turned his head to look over his shoulder and search for her. The ballroom was disappearing, and he was in the hallway, and the door closed.
He broke free of the iron grip to rush at the doorman who’d moved to block the entrance. “Let me back in,” he demanded.
“This man is in breach of security,” lied the bully.
The doorman’s face tightened and his body did not budge. Graverobber’s heart sank as he cursed the very heavens for allowing this to happen. He wasn’t able to help her. Shilo was on her own and it wasn’t even his fault.
“Please, please,” he begged. “She’s all alone. She’s a seventeen year old girl.”
Impassive, the man shrugged and said some bullshit about protocols. “Step away from the door, sir, or it will not go well for you.”
Damn it. Graverobber turned on his heel and stormed off to sulk and –what else could he do?—examine the paintings that lined the hallway. Shilo was ever on his mind; where she was, who she was talking to, if someone would take advantage of her, if her evolving strength would hold up in the face of the new landscape.
She met with one person after another, the faces and names and titles all blurring together until she wasn’t sure how many she’d met and declined to shake hands with. They’d accepted her shyness and seemed as bored as could be. Their enthusiasm was feigned. The transparent façade could have been seen through by any fool. There were representatives of the remaining states, of which there were very few, ambassadors who chatted by video with other parts of the world, including her homeland, a woman who stood out from the crowd as the Vice President, but even she did not seem too important. None of them cared, so Shilo extended the same courtesy to them.
The President had two aides on his right, security and reporters all around. After leaving the representative, a young, red-haired bodyguard had kindly escorted her to where the entourage were hanging around, seemingly so she had the time to be located and introduced. Her knees shook, breath hitching in her throat. She wished for a hand to hold and wondered where Graverobber had gotten to. The man had an irritating habit of disappearing on her. He’d picked the absolute worst time to do so, and the more time she had to think on it, the more it irritated her until she was furious at him. Damn him.
He was an elderly man in an all-silver wheelchair, his paisley suit hanging loose on his boneless, sagging frame. The hair on his head was over his shoulder in a long white braid bound with a red ribbon. The man did not seem feeble, however, in spite of his age and weakened appearance. Strength and power exuded from him, top to toe, mostly from his hawklike yellow eyes, no doubt changed in surgery. She knew this and still was cowed. There was a queer urge to drop to her knees and kiss a ring or bow low.
When she did not speak, too intimidated and frighted to open her lips, he offered his hand and said “Miss Wallace, how good of you to come.”
Aware that the reporters were recording this exchange, she attempted to stop the shaking in her arm when she shook his hand, her palm sweaty. “Sir.”
“I am President of the States… what remains of them,” he said.
“I know,” she said.
“You are a brave woman. We were enthralled by your accomplishments, and at your age. Be proud, Shilo,” he said gently, placing his other hand over to stop the violent trembling. She did not care for being recorded, and liked his touch less. She could not seem to break from his eyes. “What is it that your mother would say? Indulge an old man.”
How dare he bring up her mother, she wanted to say and could not. It was out of her hands. Shilo was helpless. “Yield for nothing,” she half-whispered.
“My dear, I am hard of hearing. A little louder,” he said, hand behind his ear.
“Yield for nothing.”
At that moment, she was budged hard enough to send her sprawling. She threw her hands down to break her fall and cried out upon impact. Her knee skinned through the light fabric of her scarlet dress. She hitched it up to observe the damage. Torn skin, a surface injury only, blood welling through. Her hands ached. At least there was no broken skin on her palms, just red marks that would fade. Tears welled in her eyes out of embarrassment as much as pain. This wouldn’t have happened if Graverobber was here. He would have caught her.
“Oh my, I am so sorry!” a woman’s voice said. Shilo sniffed free of her tears, let the fabric drop, and gingerly got to her feet. Before the watchful eyes of the President and the cameras she’d lost her step and fallen. “I didn’t see you there.”
Shilo covered her face with one hand until the cameras and recorders got the point and either turned aside or flickered off.
“Wonderful to meet you. I’ll be watching you with great interest,” the President said, an edge in his tone. He did not like having his all-important meeting interrupted, Shilo could tell. She didn’t know why meeting her was important or why there had to be that many public witnesses, and frankly she didn’t care. He turned the wheelchair about and resumed socializing with the other official-looking attendees, leaving Shilo grateful to be ignored. The formerly insulated girl had neither the skill nor interest in overmuch interaction with strangers. At a distance, sure, but in person she became awkward and trapped in her head. Paralyzed. The woman kept apologizing. Finally, Shilo cared to catch a look at the clutz.
She had wavy auburn hair set on top of an elegantly wide-jawed face, green eyes lidded by spidery lashes. Atop her head were goggles that matched her corset. Round calves and black pumps descended from a tight, charcoal grey pencil skirt. She fretted her hands together and was overly anxious about an accident, again saying she was sorry.
“It’s okay,” Shilo mumbled, blowing on her hands. “It was an accident.”
“What’s this about?” A third voice broke into the conversation. “Rachel, what have you—oh, look who it is!” The face had not been part of the blurred procession. “Shilo, isn’t it? Are you hurt?”
“No. No, I’m alright,” she said.
She held out her hand for him to shake. He turned it palm-side down and kissed her knuckles, earning an astonished blush. The touch of his beard on her hand tickled. In his light tenor, he said, “A pleasure to meet you. Shame I missed out earlier. Late arrival, you know.”
“Oh. Oh, yeah, that’s too bad,” she stammered.
“This is my assistant, Rachel.” And Rachel did hold a clipboard. “She’s not usually on the clumsy side. Can I get you a drink?”
“No, I’m fine,” she demurred finding he was easy to talk to. “I don’t think I got your name, back at the, um, briefing.”
“I’m a Senator,” he said. “One of the very few remaining.”
Shilo knew nothing of politics. Her mind scrambled to remember what senators were. Something to do with meetings. Oh, Congress, of course. They were elected to go and vote on different bills, an important job. How was it that all these influential folk wanted to meet her, talk to her? It didn’t make any sense.
“Nice to meet you.”
“Pleasure’s all mine.”
The stirrings, the nervous little prickles in her spine and throat, confused her all the more and reminded her of how she felt with Graverobber. She was being disloyal and had to leave at once before her guilt consumed her.
“Excuse me. I have to find my date,” she said, realizing a moment too late that she’d misspoken. She wanted Graverobber to stay out of trouble by not being attached to her in an inappropriate context. So much for that. The Senator looked disappointment and gracefully ended the conversation. Shilo found Graverobber out in the hallway, seeming not to have a care in the world.
Chapter 5: Exorcism
There was a place all set up for them, a penthouse suite according to a man who escorted them outside. The first thing Shilo did once they were in the limousine was to grab the bottle of expensive champagne and raise it to her mouth, trembling from hands to legs. The evening had gotten the best of her, and finally social anxiety had kicked in. Graverobber and Shilo said not a word to each other during the drive, each stewing in their own thoughts. In their elegance, they had lost the casual, comfortable air that was their couple’s signature, Shilo’s ability to see past Graverobber’s façade to his actual insecurities, to see him. Now it was like they didn’t even know each other, posture stiff, Shilo staring out the window for no reason other than to avoid his black-lined eyes.
A building that was impossibly high, topped with a spinning, shining orb, greeted them after ten or so minutes. Shilo lost count of the floor, only knew that there were windows like stars, balconies like clouds, and the elevator going up was clear and impressive. The car pulled up to a driveway that, once connected with the car, began to rise up three stories until it stopped. From there, they walked along a railed walkway—and here Shilo did hold Graverobber’s hand, frightened that they could see the street rushing directly below their feet—to the elevator door. The bellhop who’d been stalking behind the couple now went ahead to open door and usher them in.
“Don’t be frightened,” he said, though anyone in their right mind would be. An elevator operator stood in a purple and gold uniform, hand on the lever. A bench was set up against the wall, and on the ceiling was a camera, a fly on the wall. Shilo flew to the bench and gripped it, closed her eyes and refused to open them. A hand was on her shoulder, not Graverobber’s. The elevator operator was touching her in an attempt to provide comfort. He pretended not to notice or care, about the touch or about the ground falling further from them.
He pretended, too, not to be impressed by the interior when the doors opened. It was like a dream, this hobo’s fantasy of better times. A creamy floor and red paneled walls, Victorian furniture; live, actual green –not synthetic!—plants on the tables and in the corners; a little chandelier, lit with false candles; a bowl of ripe, colorful, unfamiliar fruit on the low table; some screens leading to a kitchen, others to a dining table with two chairs, and two doors that surely went to a bedroom and bathroom; an arched double door out to the veranda. The bellhop left their bags and said he would bring the rest later, at their convenience. Shilo touched the plush pink fabric on the couch, taking it all in. He could tell just by looking at her that she did not understand the gravity of the situation. She would not see that it was trickery.
“Kid, tell me you’re not buying it,” he implored.
Impatient, he snarled, “This charade, of course, this fucking beauty contest starring you.”
“What are you talking about? Everyone’s been perfectly lovely.”
“Yeah, perfect. No one’s perfect, Shilo.”
“You sure aren’t,” she said derisively, folding her arms in a pouting, teenage posture; he reminded himself that she was a seventeen year old girl and prone to the occasional tantrum. That did not mean she was off the hook. The girl had to think, and if she refused, he had to be her advocate. “Unless you mean a perfect asshole.”
“I’m going to let that one slide,” he said. “Come on. You’re just a pawn to them at best, a pretty pet at worst: someone they can dress up and push around. Think this is a home they’ve granted you? It’s a gilded cage for their clipped bird.”
“Oh, very nice. I know you pride yourself on being a lone wolf—and thank you, by the way, for your disappearing act when I was scared out of my mind—but that doesn’t make me a metaphorical animal, too. I’m not a peacock or any other kind of bird. Some people are nice. These people are,” she said.
“It wasn’t… I didn’t… Damn it, Shilo, I’d have been with you if I could! They kept me away from you,” he said, raising his voice. She copied his fine example.
“Graverobber,” she said with a venomous bite, and he knew they were in trouble if they were reiterating their first names like this. Her hackles were up, so to speak. “Nothing could stop you if you really tried, I know that much. But you didn’t. You left me alone with all those people.”
“Don’t you play innocent with me, little Miss Wallace,” he retorted. “You didn’t even look over your own shoulder, just kept a’walking without a care in the world. Let yourself be led off, and hell if I know how it went, because you didn’t tell me after.” He was walking closer to her and didn’t know why, to stop her from talking, to stop the argument.
“What’s the matter, Graverobber? Did I hurt your feelings?”
“Don’t be a bitch,” he growled, and immediately wanted to undo his words. She stared at him, shocked, and pushed him back, ran to what she assumed was the bedroom door and lucked out on the first try. Shilo attempted to slam it shut, but his arm was in the way, hand to the wall. “Open this door,” he said.
“You are not my father,” she said. “Quit acting like it.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, trying to read her expression through the fractured view. She was hurt, eyes red, and shaking out of anger. Graverobber felt tense, and furious, and repentant, and it all twisted together until he didn’t know which way was up. “I’m sorry.” Her body breathed. Her expression did not calm. “Let me in.”
“Don’t boss me around,” she said, and let him in.
They stared at each other, past words, past anything but the rage fueling the inevitable: Shilo rushed forward and kissed him, thrusting her tongue into his mouth. He grunted and boosted her up, giving her leeway to lock her legs around him. Her hands cruelly tugged at his hair, and he shoved her into the wall, earning a pained moan. She cradled his jaw in her grip, forcing him to break the kiss.
“You bastard,” she said, panting. “That hurt.”
“Want me to stop?”
One word broke his resolve to take it slow, back off or go easy on the delicate bird. “No.” No kid gloves, no nothin’.
The bed, the ridiculous bed with the tall, bronze frame and high thread count, was unmade when he swung her about, pressing her down amidst the piles of pillows. He followed her down, rough kisses merciless, hands roaming up and down her body. Shilo’s arm swept the pillows beneath and around them onto the wood floor in one fluid motion, then reached up, ripping at his clothing.
“You’ll damage it,” he purred.
She threw his sarcasm right back in his face with a wry chuckle. “Get me out of his dress. Be gentle—oh!” Because he impatiently turned her on her stomach and, rather than carefully unzip and peel the expensive fabric from her, ripped the gown open, exposing her backside. He pulled it down, exposing the rest of her. She looked over her shoulder, fire in the coals that were her dark eyes. “Think you’re a big, strong man?”
“Yes.” He raised his hand and brought it down on her ass, and again, and again, sitting himself up and pulling her onto his lap. “And shut up.” He caressed her spine, the curve of her ass, the tops of her thighs, slid off her underwear and then her bra. That would be the last of gentleness for the evening, that was clear.
Shilo, naked little Shilo, turned over and pulled herself up, grabbed at his groin, put pressure on the swelling anatomy. He thrust up into her hand slightly, closing his eyes. And then she squeezed, and he snapped, pushing her back and onto the rumpled, exquisite gold bedclothes where she laid, momentarily stunned. In that moment, he straddled her lap, his touch roaming up from hipbones to breasts, pinching her tightening nipples. He lowered his body and suckled there, using more teeth than was necessary, bit the top of her breast so there’d be an angry mark come the morning.
Breath shallow and harsh, she raised her legs and bucked her hips. Graverobber felt the heat. It excited him, and he briefly wondered if this was wrong, if he was taking advantage… and then she roughly brought their mouths for an even rougher kiss, sucking and biting his lower lip. He slid his hand down and, without warning, pushed two fingers inside her. Shilo cried out, no acting there. She was wet but not relaxed, and right then he did not give a good goddamn if it hurt her. He needed this. He needed relief, needed to get rid of the monstrous feeling inside of him of savagery mingled with and directed at his love. Savagery was a terrible distraction that had to be exorcised. Sex was as good a method as any. He bit down on her neck, wanting her to be covered in bruises. She seemed keen on his pain, as well, yanking at his hair, forcing him to bite his lip and bury his face between her shoulder and her throat to keep her from noticing the pain she was inflicting on him. Fingers twisted on her, and she was the one who made a pained noise.
Shilo attempted and did not succeed in pulling the tie tight. That just would not do. He gave her no more opportunities, stripping hurriedly and throwing his clothes aside. He didn’t want to use a condom. He wanted to feel her, be as close to her as possible. Practicality and a fear of pregnancy quelled that passionate reaction, but he fumbled with the packaging. There was something like reluctance in the way she held her mouth. He struggled to ignore it and found he couldn’t.
There seemed to be a struggle: yes or no, a small battle, hands curling in the sheets. “Fine.” That wasn’t exactly the response he was hoping for, yet an acquiescence nonetheless. Graverobber took it.
He moved down her body, wiping his fingers on her stomach, and spread her legs. When he pushed inside of her, he went right to a hellish paradise, a fire in him. Sure it wouldn’t last long by the tightness unfurling inside of him, he pumped his hardness, reveling in the moans that fell from Shilo’s throat, and in the sweat that studded her body, the natural blush that was on her cheeks and chest. Her long-fingered, black-nailed hands stroked her breasts, circling the points on each breast.
It was an unbelievable turn-on. He went further in, harder, harder, tearing the sounds out of her, the bed sighing, and he worked through the energy that had built up inside until his full weight collapsed on her.
They were panting. She’d not orgasmed and still her breaths were beating heavy from her lungs, chest rising and falling under his body.
“How’s that?” he wheezed on an exhale.
She pushed him off and stumbled to her feet, a gleaming little stripe on her belly and on her thighs. Hate was written on her bruised pink mouth. It seemed that their tumble had not been good for her. He was confused, not understanding where it had gone wrong. It was just what he’d needed.
“Fuck you,” she spat, and slept on the couch that night.
Chapter 6: Green
In the television shows Shilo had grown up watching, the men and women drawn together by love’s sweetest bonds bickered from the beginning up until they tied their fates up with a kiss or a declaration of love or both. The arguing all stopped after that, and there certainly wasn’t shouting or glaring. There was no furious fucking that felt good for the duration before the realization that the climax wouldn’t solve anything, not in the perfectly written stories. Love meant happiness and love was easy. That was it.
It was a lonely, uncovered night on the couch. She did not toss and turn, only whimpered to herself in the absolute dark and wondered why she had to have a life that was, by comparison, so tragically written. In the hollow night, she shuffled out on the balcony and looked up at the starving moon and felt her own hunger. Things within herself weren’t right, and as for the man she’d brought with her, she wondered if she’d forever have to feel responsible for his emotional health. He probably felt the same for her. Sleep finally beckoned her inside. She took the lure, laid down, and closed her eyes.
Life together was meant to be easy, wasn’t it? But she could not keep herself from going rigid at breakfast, going so far as to get up and move a seat further down when the rainbow-haired rogue rose and went to join her for breakfast. She spread jelly on a roll and stiffened when Graverobber spoke her name.
“Easy, kid.” He had her hand. Surprised, she dropped the knife and pastry with a ringing clatter and watched him massage her knuckles. The gentle motion left her wanting. “What happened last night?”
She shuddered, was loathe to talk about it. The whole incident had left her ashamed for giving in and fucking him when they should have gone to sleep or talked like reasonable people. Shilo didn’t know how to fix it, and now they were both stuck. “Forget it. This is another day.” With that, she wrenched from his grasp.
No one bothered them immediately, and it was Graverobber’s suggestion that they go for a stroll; were it up to Shilo, they’d have stayed in watching TV. Once he stabbed a finger at each one, she did see that there were cameras everywhere.
“Is that so different from back home?” she asked.
Sheepishly, he admitted that it probably wasn’t, but that it was proof that this new world wasn’t perfect in the slightest. The wickedness and corruption may have been hidden under a slick veneer, but it was there. She shrugged. A woman in a shop ran out and asked Shilo to come in and say hi to her husband. Shilo was nice enough to comply. Even that dug into her companion’s craw, and he explained why; everyone spoke as if they knew her personally and intimately, like it was not out of the question for anyone off the street to drop what they were doing like a hot potato.
Graverobber here was the hot potato in question and they both knew it. She gave a weak apology for the interruption and took his arm, leaning into his side for the rest of the stroll.
“It’s strange here,” she said.
The occasional squares of decorative grass were perfectly green, and all colors were vibrant and pure. Great gold zeppelins puttered about in the cumulus-sighing sky. The people were bright and surgically turned into models of gut-wrenching beauty. And the buildings, how they sparkled. To herself, Shilo ardently wished that they would not fight again. But on their return ‘home,’ they found an invitation on the table for a congressional ball. “Oh,” Shilo sighed in relief. “Look, Graves, look. It’s another party.”
“Yeah?” Reading over her shoulder, he straightened up and leaned an elbow on her shoulder. “Could be there’s something pretty there for me to steal.”
She brushed off his arm, whirled, and wrapped around his waist, looking up with a playful grin. “As long as it’s not another girl.”
And they were fine for a spell.
It was a little white lie, phoning and saying that she’d spilled wine on the red dress. In return, they let her wear her own clothes to the event—both of them could, and they talked beforehand on not leaving each other’s side, not without saying so. Together, they looked up the route and took the moving chains of sidewalk to the building where the event was being thrown. Shilo, arms nervously locked, liked the feel of her own net gloves on her arms, and liked it better with Graverobber’s coat touching the places left exposed by her dark dress. This was an event celebrating some environmental policy just passed by Congress. It wasn’t terribly crowded inside, room enough to breathe and reassurance that Graverobber wouldn’t get misplaced. The entire hall was festooned in green, and the music was bubbly, inviting feet to dance. At the front of the room was a stage with a podium; at the back was the entrance, the attendants, the place to discard the worries of the outside world.
A man took Graverobber’s coat and, judging by the contortion of his features, immediately regretted doing so. Shilo was used to the mud (how he managed to find dirt here, she couldn’t configure).
“Here is your drink, sir,” she said, lifting one off a tray for him as a penguin-suited server passed by. The delicate glass was ridiculous in his indelicate hand.
“Why, thank you, madam.”
Shilo felt herself being drawn forward; whoever the speaker or speakers were, it was intended for the seventeen year old guest to take in the contents. Shilo didn’t mind being right near the stage. It didn’t detract from her fun, which lay in Graverobber. They were having a grand time snickering to each other toward the overuse of emerald, Shilo exclaiming over the dull music and bland food, when the speakers spoke up cheerfully, asking if they wouldn’t please put their hands together for the man responsible for the new bill, the freshest face to Congress and a revolutionary thinker.
Amidst smatters of applause, a lean man bounded up to the stage, lifted himself up rather than go to the stairs, and approached the microphone. He tapped it twice. His face filled the wall behind him. Shilo choked.
It was the Senator. Less stuffy than the rest of the bunch in his casually rumpled suit and olive combat boots, his blue and white hair was neatly styled, the short facial hair immaculately trimmed. His fingers wrapped the base of the microphone as he leaned in like a singer about to croon. When he talked, about loving the sky and stars and sea, Shilo believed him. No one back home seemed to give a damn about the state of the world. There was only filth and everyone was okay with that. For Shilo, who knew the stars as well as her insects, she wanted clarity for the world, not more decay.
Then he noticed her. His hazel eyes roved over the crowd and then—snap—found Shilo’s wide-open and attentive.
“Now, my friends, if you don’t mind, there’s someone I want to salute.” He extended a hand in her direction.
Mortified, Shilo felt all focus on her. Graverobber froze right along with her. Everyone simply stared. And then the clapping started! The noise filled the entire room, stuffing up her ears with the roar. It’s the acoustics of the room, she told herself; surely there couldn’t have been so much enthusiasm. At some point, he replaced the mike and hopped down. Shilo numbly stood there, watching him come up to greet her personally once again.
“Thanks for coming to my little party,” he said.
“Oh, this is your party?” she said.
“It’s my proposal. I wanted to make sure the VIP could attend.”
“VIP?” she echoed, unable to do anything, it seemed, but repeat short sentences. Something about him greatly confused her.
“That’d be you, of course. Delighted. What do you think? Not about the party, it’s a tad garish…” Odd words coming from one so flamboyant, she would’ve said, but he made it casual. This event took its frippery in earnest. “… About protecting the environment. That’s my platform. Pro-surgery, anti-toxin.”
She pushed past her revulsion at the pronouncement that he was in favor of surgical enhancements—it was, after all, the norm—to fix on his gentle and earnest smile. “Oh, I’m all in favor of that,” she said.
“Listen,” he said, and, leaning forward, took her elbow, steering her off to the side. “I wanted to be sure to talk to you. Yes, you,” he laughed in response to her baffled state. “You think I haven’t noticed that this world’s been plastered with your image? Why, there’s not a person in these states who does not know of the stir you’ve caused in your quaint little hometown!”
Shilo smirked at him. The island, as they both – all, she corrected herself; Graverobber was standing there, too—knew, was anything but quaint. That brought to mind cottages and kindness, not a city built on top of the dead. “Is that so?”
“Obviously,” Graverobber interjected. “What’s your point?”
For a moment only, the Senator looked annoyed. Then it passed and all was well. “My point is that Miss Wallace could do something with her celebrity. Pardon me; I ought to address you directly. Shilo, you’ve been through hell. We all know that. We were secondhand witnesses to the slaughter.”
Shilo felt herself slipping back into the memories, no longer so fresh but still they stung at the mention of the night when she’d bathed in blood. With huge effort, she managed not to tremble and tear. “Yes?” she said instead.
“Well, why not put your experience to good use and not be a flash in the pan media attraction?” he said, and eagerly went on, “There should be press conferences! A testimony before Congress; vie for an official title. Don’t be their flash in the pan media attraction. You’re worth so much more.”
“I thought you were pro-surgery,” she hesitated, but a part of her, the ambitious, that which wanted to help heal the world’s sickness, believed him, and that part was growing moment by moment by moment, encouraged by his smile and the light in his eyes.
“When it’s necessary, of course! Elective…” Uneasily, he glanced around. “It makes me unpopular. You see, I’ve never had one. Don’t you see, Shilo?”
“You could affect real change here. Change people’s attitudes if you use the power you have now,” he insisted. “I could help you.”
At the end of their conversation, she gave him the number to reach her at. He left the couple with a wave, to mingle elsewhere. Shilo met Graverobber’s dumbfounded expression and said, a little irritated, “What?”
Chapter 7: Pigs
It was a tranquil night in the hotel kitchens, what with most guests out enjoying the night air. Oh, to be sure, some had fallen in to the dining area downstairs with their loved ones, keeping the staff busy enough that they could not be considered idle… but not to the point of being in a fury over pots and pans. And there was discussion over dirty dishes of the peoples in the establishment hunkering down for the night, rooms complimentary of the event’s host; what so-and-so wore, who was on whose arm. It was known that Shilo Wallace of the sequestered island had made an appearance in black, and that the up and coming Senator managing the event had held her attention and made her eyes sparkle.
An order of fresh towels was carted up to the sixth floor. The shirtless boy delivering said towels rode up the elevator, hoping for a tip large enough to buy a decent drink after work, maybe even one for an already drunk girl. On approaching the guest’s door, however, he heard a terrific crash and a shout.
“God damn it, I’m not a child!”
Domestic troubles? He waited for a response and, hearing none, knocked twice. The wind was knocked out of him when none other than Shilo Wallace opened the door, sneering. Her breath snarled. Behind her, a man was sitting on the bed, much older, taller, and more colorful. The boy couldn’t help but snoop with his genetically modified eyes: they took in, captured, and recorded. Shilo was prettier in person than on TV, even with red eyes. She composed herself, if a bit shakily, and attempted a smile.
He offered the towels.
“On the bed,” she said. “Thank you.”
He rolled over and placed the towels next to the sitting man glowering at him.
“What’re you looking at?” he growled.
“Leave him alone. You’re being obnoxious,” Shilo said curtly. She started to grow angry again when the boy did not leave until the man explained with a chuckle that he was waiting for his tip for the room service. “Tip?”
“Money,” he continued without the condescension that could’ve easily snuck in at her ignorance. “Here, I’ll take care of it.” He peeled off a bill from inside his pocket and handed it to the lad. “Now, scram. Miss Wallace and I have some… unfinished business.” He grinned, canines flashing.
Shilo looked down, her face turning pink. She did nothing to acknowledge either presence in the room, and, feeling almost guilty, the boy left them in that heavy silence, closing the door gingerly. Not a moment later did he hear an impact against the wood and several soft, feminine sighs.
Downstairs, the staff chewed over the gossip, as well as the footage he’d inadvertently recorded and had since been wrested from his eyes with promises of extra pay.
“A lover, huh? That little tramp.”
“Seemed they’d been fighting to me,” protested the boy. “Could be he was a business partner, or an assistant. ’Sides, what kind of tramp doesn’t ken the services I supply, at a glance?”
“That’s true enough,” agreed a maid in her tarted up black-and-white uniform. “If anyone’s the tramp, it’s you.”
Under the table, the cooks betted that the boy and the maid would go to bed together if properly plied with alcohol and noise. Several credits changed meaty, hopeful hands and, after enough gossip and music and laughter, the pair ended up fucking quickly against her apartment wall after he walked her home. His vision still hooked up to a display, the crew roared over their shared sweating and grunting. Like pigs, they agreed.
“I’m a pig,” Graverobber agreed as he leaned over the young girl. He had her against the door, in such a position that he could look down her dress and see that she was not, in point of fact, wearing a bra—not that she needed one.
Shilo exhaled, trying to recover from the kisses to her neck, he noted smugly. “Cut it out. I’m not tumbling into bed at the snap of your fingers or the merest flick of your tongue.”
“Oh, but you must admit it is a very skilled tongue,” he purred, lacing his fingers around her slender waist.
“Resorting to bragging, are we? Come on, Graves, you’re better than that.” She folded her arms and pouted so seriously, taking on the air of a woman much older and bitterer than her seventeen short years. “Besides, we both know it’s more of a silver tongue.”
“Kid, I wasn’t intending to seduce you.”
Not tonight, when the results would surely be a repeat of her anger from previous nights; yes, it had become almost a routine: an argument would erupt, Shilo would disrupt the proceedings with vigorous and violent fucking, and then she would abandon their bed to sleep on the couch. He didn’t pretend to understand it. Understand her. He thought he’d known all there was to know about his lover, the girl he’d essentially pledged his life and loyalty to, but evidently there was more to learn.
And he wasn’t sure where to begin. Conflict resolution had never been his strong suit. No, he was better at running away. Now, of course, in this strange land, he had nowhere to run to. No secret lair, no alternate allies. Shilo was all he had.
“Then why did you—that is, what did you mean by ‘unfinished business?’” she asked, removing his hands from around her figure and pacing away from him, examining herself in the long mirror across from the bed, arranging her lovely long wig.
“I wanted to get rid of the boy so we could talk. Adult to adult.”
“But I’m not an adult, as you well know.”
He shrugged and shoved his mitts in his pockets, rocking absentmindedly on his heels. “Close enough.”
She asked pointblank what it was that he wanted to talk to her about.
He scathingly answered, “Why, your new friend, of course. Never trust a politician, kid. Don’t you remember that’s exactly what Rotti was?”
Shilo shook her head and insisted that the Senator was different, she could feel it. He wanted to help her, with no ulterior motives.
“He’s nice to me.”
“Of course he’s nice to you. Now, I don’t care if it’s your pussy or your signature, but he wants something from you.” Watching her sit down on the bed cross-legged, he shook back his mane and concluded, “I don’t trust him. I really don’t. You deserve to be warned.”
“Oh, keep your warnings. Don’t need them,” she said dismissively, running her fingers through her wig, carefully keeping a blank face.
The problem was that she did and didn’t recognize it, but he really didn’t want to push the issue and risk a worse confrontation. Instead, he sighed, sat next to her, laid an arm across her shoulders.
She gave him a scathing look, which he felt was undeserved, and shrugged out of the half-embrace to stand and dramatically walk away from him.
“You’re just like him, always presuming to know what’s best for me,” she said.
“No, Shilo, I’m nothing like your father, because I actually have your best interests at heart. I actually love you,” he replied without thinking, and it was out. He loved her. Her eyes widened slightly, and for a moment he thought the evening would end in some way other than a fight. He hoped.
He was a fool. “Is that so?” she said, and bitterly reminded him, “We’ve done nothing but fight and be distant since leaving home. Sometimes I wonder if I…”
“What, kid? Go ahead, tell me if you think you made a mistake bringing me here. God knows, lying alone at night, I’ve wondered why you brought me here if just to use and shun me. I’ve got feelings too. Go ahead and tell me.” He sucked on his teeth and found that he was biting down painfully hard on his molars.
A cruel chuckle came from her sweet mouth. “I wonder if I did the right thing, that’s all. Guess that makes me a little bitch.”
He shook his head. “Well, I’ll be. I don’t even know who you are.”
The phone rang.
Chapter 8: Heartbeat
Hard as she tried, she could not reconcile the Graverobber of her thoughts with the one she had previously encountered. That same man who spoke of love and poetry and shelter could hurt with his sharp, quick words. And she…she could hurt with her little words, too. That power was in her vocal chords. She even wanted to. He pushed, she pushed back. It was wrong, that was clear, but in the heated moment she couldn’t stop herself, and afterwards she relished the hurt in his eyes; reflected, she imagined, in her own. And she couldn’t help it. She did love him, didn’t she? But perhaps it wasn’t as much as she should.
He was her shoulder, her anchor, her—
“I’m really glad you agreed to come out with me,” he interrupted, with an eager smile that made her blush. Somehow, the Senator was so much more boyish than Graverobber, even with the beard and aggressively masculine wardrobe. His every movement oozed infectious enthusiasm and, bless him, glee.
“It was nice of you to ask,” she replied, hiding her shaking hands on her lap, beneath the emerald tablecloth. She hadn’t bothered to dress up and now, given the formal atmosphere and the dozen or so cameras following them, she wished she had put in a little more effort. As it was, she wore her wig, omitted Graverobber’s necklace for a simple, borrowed pendant, and a brief white dress that practically begged for stains.
Thinking of the possible stains she could accrue other than red from the marinara-dressed pasta she’d ordered five minutes ago, she blushed. That was not an appropriate line of thought, especially not with him around. Shilo’s thoughts were going to behave, and that was that. After all, this was not a date.
“Well, I hated the thought of you being cooped up on a fine evening like this,” he said.
She added nervously, “But, remember, it’s not a date.”
“No, no, no, of course not. Wouldn’t dream of calling it such,” he said.
Their food was served by the most poised of wait staff, and given the circumstances they’d have been excused a show of nerves: a celebrity and an up-and-coming politician together at one table, tailed by so-called journalists. More like paparazzi, looking for something to sensationalize, dramatize, fantasize.
Shilo turned over her glass to accept the offering of rich, red wine. No one questioned her age. She took a small amount of pride in her own importance and thanked the waiter in black. A smile that didn’t show teeth was given in exchange before he left.
He demonstrated how to swirl the contents under one’s nose before sipping, not guzzling. His corrections didn’t embarrass her. It wasn’t her fault that no one had instructed her on how to behave in society.
The food wasn’t to her liking, but she forced it down. She was used to pre-packaged food. She was used to her own terrible cooking. There were mushrooms in the sauce that she carefully banished to the side of her plate.
“Mind if I take those?” he asked, indicating her mushrooms with his fork.
She pushed her plate toward him. “Be my guest.”
“Oh, no, Shilo Wallace; tonight you’re my guest.”
Manners be damned, she took a gulp of wine to blame the blush in her cheeks on the alcohol. From reading her father’s textbooks, she knew that consumption of alcohol caused blood vessels to dilate, producing redness. There was something about his voice wrapped around something simple and ordinary, like her dull name, which was simply delicious.
Trouble, her mind warned her, as it had with… others. She brushed it aside and smiled after a mouthful of perfectly al dente pasta.
In spite of her best efforts to split the check, he insisted on covering the full sum.
“But I have money,” she said.
“Save it. Spend it on tattoos, a college education, interesting underwear; not on silly me.”
It was impossible to convince him otherwise, so she let it go with an embarrassed laugh. She would consult Graverobber when she got home on how she could have better handled the situation. He would surely know. The man knew almost everything there was to know, from women to Z to politicians.
But it seemed the evening wasn’t over.
It had begun to rain while they were inside the restaurant. Approaching the door with her in front of him, the Senator spun her about to face him. Her heart hammered uncomfortably in her ribcage. No amount of thoughts slowed the beating. His smile was honest and white.
“What say we take a walk, just the two of us?” he asked her over the clicks and shutters of the reporters’ equipment.
Trying valiantly to ignore the background noise, she nearly shook her head, instead protesting that it was pouring. Besides, they wouldn’t be alone, not by a longshot.
“Oh, where’s your sense of adventure? Besides, don’t all kids like to play in puddles?” he teased.
“I am not a kid,” she said flatly. “And I prefer to stay dry.”
He turned to the reporters. “Say, folks, could Shilo borrow a coat?”
To her great surprise, someone complied. He shook the person’s hand – with a bill passing between them on the sly, she suspected. Nonetheless, she wouldn’t begrudge herself the chance at a bit of extra warmth. She took the article, said thank you like the good girl she wanted to be, and wore it, snuggling deep into the warm fabric. The Senator said it suited her well. It was just on the edge of inappropriate, and she knew it.
Part of her hoped he would push past that edge, blur the boundary further, increase the horrible tension. That he would stop being a perfect gentleman.
He stepped outside, into the freezing, pouring rain, and opened an umbrella. Graverobber would have made a crack about always having protection somewhere on his person. Instead, the Senator kindly and simply asked if she would please join him for a stroll. And, well, Shilo was helpless, as always. She bundled up and followed him under the expansive umbrella. In spite of the protection overhead, the wind beat the rain into their faces and onto their bodies. Shilo laughed and held up her hands, but it was no use.
“Nothing wrong with getting a little wet,” he said, to which she laughed. He turned to her with puzzlement in his eyes.
“Nothing, nothing. So if this isn’t a date, why did you drag me out here?” she wondered, keeping a safely appropriate distance.
“Why, to enjoy the pleasure of your company.”
“That is a date,” she told him.
“Oh dear. What ever will we do about that?” he asked in mock horror.
There was a momentary silence between them. Bulbs flashing lit their way in the watery dark. Her boots clicked in the shallow puddles, disturbing the surface, kicking up droplets. He did not step down too solidly. He was like a dancer, something to be admired. Then, she dared to stir the dripping quiet with her voice.
“We could talk about business,” she suggested quietly.
“That we could. But my Rachel isn’t here to take notes.”
“Your assistant?” she questioned, curious.
“Yes, yes, my assistant. You met her. Reddish brown hair, too tall for her own good, an old-fashioned clipboard?”
“I remember. She knocked me over on accident,” Shilo said.
“And she felt terrible for that. As did I. You should know, Shilo, that Rachel is under a form of indentured servitude. Oh, it’s not uncommon or cruel. For a period of seven years, she works for me, and in exchange I cosign her surgeries and ensure that she has a roof over her head. She has two small children and needed to provide for them without stooping to prostitution. Can you understand?”
Shilo furrowed her brow and went deep in thought. Servitude was a step above slavery, from what she remembered from her books. And yet, the Senator was a kind, gentle man, and Rachel had not seemed powerless when Shilo met her. If that was the strange but not inhumane way this side of the world worked, she couldn’t complain, not unless she wanted to estrange her one and only major ally.
“Yes, I understand,” she said.
“Good, good!” he exclaimed, clearly relieved. “Listen, I wanted to talk to you about something.” He put a hand up to the reporters. “Gentlemen, ladies, I think you’ve gotten enough fuel for tonight’s story.” And, just like that, they ceased to follow the pair as they proceeded through the rain. The Senator said nothing.
“What did you want to talk to me about?”
“What? Oh, yes. You see… Shilo? Shilo, what’s wrong?”
Don’t be silly, she meant to say, I’m fine.
But she had trouble getting the words out and found herself gasping for the breath that wouldn’t come no matter how hard she tried. Dizziness encircled her vision, and there was a sharp pain deep in her chest like when she was nervous, but more intense, and the feeling would not go away. Her knees buckled; he caught her in his arms as she folded under the extreme pressure. Fog took her. The umbrella hit the ground, though the rain did nothing to dispel the sensations of pain and choking, horrible choking.
“Shilo, don’t worry. I’m going to take care of you,” he said, brushing what passed for hair out of her eyes. She blinked out a tear.
“Am I going to die?” she managed to choke out before the great, dark, awful pressure took her vision, took her consciousness.
Drifting in and out, she felt herself lifted onto a stretcher and strapped in. Drifting in and out, she heard the siren wailing, and felt a hand in hers, squeezing reassuringly. Graverobber, she supposed, though the thought did nothing to bring her comfort. What did bring her comfort was the oblivion of sleep.
And words drifted in, too, from a distance. “It’s her heart,” said a faraway voice. “I don’t care who she is, we have to operate soon. It’s too great a strain.”
Chapter 9: Illegal Guardian
Drip, drip, something was dripping. The rain, of course, where they had left her on the pavement, was falling still. Only that could not be it, for her back was cushioned, held. Consciousness was coming back slowly, like waking up from a deep, drugged dream. For a moment, her mind conjured the dreadful notion that she was back on Sanitarium Island, coming out of one of her fainting spells under the watchful eye and guidance of her father. Instead: blinding white light, green walls, strange blips and beeps.
She turned to the voice, expecting Graverobber and finding her companion for the evening, the Senator.
“Senator!” She made a motion to cover herself and found that her clothes were gone, replaced with a white hospital gown, fastened unevenly so her back was exposed. She slunk down against the starchy pillow. “What are you doing here?”
“I couldn’t very well abandon you.”
“What happened? I… I fainted?”
“Yes.” He put a hand on her exposed, thin arm, and instinctively she pulled back, though the gesture was harmless, meant to be comforting. “There is something I have to tell you. I spoke with the doctor, and…”
“My heart’s failing, isn’t it,” she said faintly. Even as he looked away, preparing to tell her the terrible news, she felt nothing. Graverobber should be here, she recognized faintly. He would want to hear this, too, and feel the worry and distress she somehow could not. But did she even owe him that? He’d hurt her, badly. I don’t even know who you are. How could he not? All those nights together, in anger and in love, and he wanted more from her? What if there was nothing more to give?
“Yes,” he confirmed. “It was the pollution of where you came from, they believe. It was a ticking bomb, and all the excitement of late must have been a strain. They’ll have to operate, soon as they get a release from your parent.”
“Who, Graverobber?” She laughed, chalk in her throat. “He’s not my dad. I can’t believe you’d think that. Senator, my father is dead. He was shot by Rotti Largo before he died. I thought the reporters would know this.”
“Of course, but I thought Mr. Graverobber might be an uncle of sorts. But he has no legal claim to you, is that what you’re saying?”
Her forehead creased in concern. “What do you mean ‘claim?’ I’m not a piece of property.”
“No, no of course not. But there are legal issues. Someone has to sign off on your surgery, and you’re too young to do so.”
She shrank back further against the pillow. “How long do I have?”
“Don’t worry about that; you’re safe for now. You’re safe here. Here, take my hand. You’re shaking.”
Shilo held out her trembling hand, and he clasped it with his smooth, manicured one. “I won’t let anything happen to you,” he promised. “You’re too valuable to me.”
That helped. She relaxed some, but still… where was Graverobber?
Graverobber was moping around the apartment: juggling fruit, rearranging the furniture, playing with Shilo’s panties that, regretfully, were not filled with Shilo. The Senator was too cool a cat to be trusted, thought that could be said for Graverobber himself. Too smooth; everyone fell for his charms. Except for Shilo. No, when she fell for him, it was for real, real serious shit, and… he’d let her down. Amber could handle the way he treated her, but Shilo was no Z whore, numbed to all manner of pain and pleasures. No, she’d experienced it all at his hands.
She deserved better. And he would do better, from now on. No more angry fucks, no more lofty expectations.
Matter resolved, he settled in front of the television and watched a cartoon about a grumpy snail. It turned into a love story and he about yacked. This was a kids’ show, for God’s sake, did they have to turn it into this dreck?
Mildly aggravated now, the news seemed a better option. The misfortune and bullshit of others always cheered him up, and he could spin it into a bedtime story for Shilo. How he loved to narrate and spy. And stay well-informed on local matters.
The weather, blah blah blah sunshine, blah blah blah mid seventies. He preferred the gloom and dank temperatures of the island.
What celebrities were together, what gossip could they scrounge up… and an ambulance, the Senator hopping up to get inside before it took off. Graverobber turned up the volume and leaned in, suddenly interested. Shilo had gone out with the Senator a few hours ago… and not returned. A vise tightened around his heart. A prayer, a memory, a homage to his father’s legacy, danced around in his mouth like a song.
Please, let her be alright.
A reporter appeared and began her report.
Shilo had suffered a heart attack and was rushed to the local hospital.
Graverobber was out the door with his coat before she concluded her report. And every “Shit, goddamn, shit” that tumbled from his mouth sounded like a desperate prayer to him.
He stepped in front of a taxi when none stopped for his impatient whistle. The driver swore loudly out the window at him.
“Take me to the hospital. Bill the hotel,” Graverobber snapped, getting in. “And step on it. My girlfriend’s in trouble.”
“If it’s a Repo Man, boy, you’re probably too late,” the driver told him. “Trust me, man, I know from experience. Lost my son to a spine. Walked in on the scene. That’s the reason I live to drink.”
“It’s not like that. Shut up, will you? I need to think.”
Heart attack, heart attack… why on earth would Shilo, of all people, have a heart attack? She was only seventeen years old, young, and of course healthy… practically acrobatic. It didn’t make any sense to him. Perhaps the Senator had poisoned her, yeah, perhaps he had. Graverobber seized on that idea.
Except… how had he poisoned her without her noticing? She was a sharp girl, good reflexes and all that.
Then again, it’s not like she was new to older men pulling the wool over her eyes when it came to hidden poisons. And she, for whatever reason, trusted the Senator, and had almost immediately done so upon meeting him. He’d seen it in her eyes, the fascination, and he had tried to pretend it hadn’t hurt him. She was a kid. Of course she was going to have celebrity crushes. He just wanted all of her affections.
It had taken Graverobber ages to earn her trust and affections. He would be damned if that Senator was to undo all his hard work and progress with his prettyboy charms and so-called status.
Shilo knew better than to fall for that, didn’t she?
Possible, then, that she had been poisoned, if not by the Senator, then by some other evildoer who needed to be taken down. First, he had to see to Shilo, and make sure the hospital was taking care of her.
The streets passed slowly. There was traffic, at this time of day. He cursed.
And that damned good weather.
Finally, he reached the gleaming hospital, with green ivy and pink flowers. He crushed a daisy in his hand, in his anxiety. The volunteer at the front desk gave him a name tag and a room number, along with instructions to the Wallace girl’s room.
Graverobber rushed into the room, Shilo’s own private room, and stormed up to the Senator, standing calmly by the window, looking out at the window. He huffed, puffing up his chest before jabbing a finger in the shorter man’s snooty face.
“Me?” the Senator said, bemused.
“This is all your fault; this wouldn’t have happened if not for you.”
“Graverobber!” Shilo protested loudly. “Stop! You’re embarrassing me… and everyone else, too.”
It was then that he realized nurses and doctors were in the room, fussing over her, examining the machines she was hooked up to, consulting with each other.
The Senator pulled Graverobber aside, into the hallway, as Graverobber shot a concerned look over his shoulder at Shilo.
“What?” he growled, out in the hallway.
“As a minor, Shilo needs a guardian to sign for any surgeries,” the Senator said. “and she’s informed me you are not, in fact, a blood relative.”
“Surgeries?” Graverobber asked.
“Yes, for her heart. It’s weak. Failing, actually. The girl’s agreed to it, but the laws are different here. And, sir…” He took hold of Graverobber’s forearm and squeezed, leaning in and menacing with his air and voice. “Seventeen is too young to consent,” he said with a warning in his voice. With that, he let go and straightened.
Refusing to be rattled, Graverobber snapped, “No surgery, no way, not ever. Not for her, forget it.”
He went back in the room and navigated through the machines to sit by Shilo’s side. She looked at him warily.
“Graverobber, what the hell was that? The Senator’s been perfectly nice to me, you didn’t have to yell at him.”
“Kid, I’m really sorry for my behavior. For all of it.” And he held her hand through the night until they both were sleeping sound.
Chapter 10: Surgery, Surgery
Graverobber awoke to find her drinking water through a straw, her body itself full of straws connecting her to IV fluids and machines. Each machine made its own sounds, beeps and hums and chimes to the tune of her body's input. A song for her heartbeat, rhythm kept by the drip of an IV, percussion by a device that periodically tracked her blood pressure. The room reeked of clean, just like a patient's room ought to. He'd sworn off bedside hospital visits a long time ago, yet for the pinpricked kid he'd come crawling back to what he hated every time. Just for her.
“Why do you hate sickrooms?” she asked, reading his mind somehow. By the time he'd finished stewing on an answer, she had opened a prepackaged container of tapioca and dug in a plastic spoon, clutched in her hand. “You look miserable.”
“Sorry,” he said. “I've visited friends. It's not what I'd call fun.” With how they'd been fighting, he was still licking his wounds, in no emotional realm to open himself to further vulnerability. Telling her all the details of his past, of a ginger girl who had loved horrible food concoctions and ended in a body bag... It wasn't something he could quite parse.
“Then... thank you for coming to see me, since it wasn't easy.” He admired the way she licked at the spoon. Kid always did have a sweet tooth. It was time for them to have one of their heart to hearts, though he refused to believe Shilo wasn't long for the world. The politician wrapping her around his twisted finger must have swindled her into this situation, be it through poison or some other slippery means. Graverobber should have been more vigilant, not let Shilo out of his sight. But that was dangerous too. She didn't deserve to be under lock and key by anyone, not after what she'd been through back on Sanitarium Island. And then the silence was pulling like taffy between them, thick and taut.
He sighed and leaned forward, holding the patch of blanket covering her thigh. “You've been brave.”
“I was faking.”
She smiled. For a moment, there was relief in the truth. Alas, reality had to rear its ugly head with her next words: “What the Senator was going to tell you was that I do need a new heart. Organ failure is no joke. He's agreed to pay for it.”
Graverobber raised his brows, on the indignant side of skeptical. “Out of the goodness of his heart, I suppose.”
“It would probably help his career, and we're friends. Are you telling me I shouldn't accept his offer? What's the alternative, begging for funds?” she huffed.
“I'm telling you it's a set-up. I tried to warn you that politicians were bad news, and this prettyboy is no different.” She scoffed and opened her mouth to speak; he held aloft his finger for no interruptions. “Didn't you learn anything from what happened on the island?”
“Don't get the surgery. Let me figure this out. I'll find us a doctor we can trust,” he plead.
“You mean like Dizzy?” Her voice was ice. “We can trust these doctors. I've been watching them. I watched the Senator, too. He didn't slip me anything, really. It was bound to happen, with my weaker immune system and exposure to the redone plague. I'm just lucky I don't have to sign a contract.”
“You're sure?” He was about to waver. Bringing up Dizzy had caught him off guard. Luckily, he caught himself. “Damn it, no! No surgery, Shilo!”
“Why is being right so important to you?” she demanded. “Listen to yourself! You've distrusted everyone and everything since we've gotten here, and nothing terrible has happened to you! Not one thing!”
“I'm trying to keep something terrible from happening to you,” he tried to explain. “If you'd just listen with your big girl ears for one minute, you'd see reason.” It was clear at once from her disdainful expression that he'd misspoken, miscalculated, mistaken gravely. “Wait, wait, I only meant--”
“Why don't you go for a walk and decide what you really want to say to the girl in active heart failure,” she said, pushing her tray away from her so she could sternly cross her arms. It would have been adorable if it weren't so heartbreaking.
And she was right. He was being an ass.
“Fine,” he said, and shoved himself out of the room, nearly shouldering into the Senator, approaching the door from the hall with a balloon bouquet. He gave him the stink eye and hissed, “I'm onto you. Don't get too comfortable in there; I'm coming right back.”
The Senator smiled his genial smile and turned the other cheek. It infuriated Graverobber enough to motivate him; he sauntered on down to the gift shop and buy a vase of real flowers, cloying scent of the dead and all.
Meanwhile, in the hospital room, Shilo accepted the brightly colored balloons sitting on her bedside table and the Senator standing at her bedside with bemusement. He could tell she was upset, he said, and had a comforting grasp on her shoulder; she'd always been terrible at hiding her real feelings, whether it was fear, disgust, or heartache. Right now, her heart hurt, it stabbed at her, the medicine for pain sending the sensations to the back of her consciousness without numbing her out completely.
“You fight with him a lot,” he noted, “Or so it appears to the casual observer.”
She shook her head. “It's complicated. Thank you for coming.”
“Right, I didn't come here to abuse your relationship,” he laughed, lightly chastising himself. “There's a fabricated heart with your name on it, Miss Wallace. I'd be happy to sign off for the surgery.”
“I thought I needed a legal guardian's permission?” she asked.
“Oh, that. We can fudge the paperwork with a couple greased palms,” he told her with a grin. “Are you ready for your first surgery?”
“I guess so,” she said.
He snapped his fingers. It all happened so fast after that. A nurse in scrubs, not a short dress and visor, appeared, along with a raven-haired woman introduced as the anesthesiologist. She helped them fill out the appropriate paperwork, signing away the hospital's liability and signing their explicit consent on the dotted lines. Assuring Shilo it wouldn't hurt, she slid the needle into Shilo's arm. She knew her heart needed to be exchanged, knew it had to happen, and as the room began to spin into a hellish dark and her conscious thought dwindled, she wondered when Graverobber would be back. With any luck, he'd be by her bedside when she woke up in recovery.
In a red and blue haze of Zydrate, she saw herself from above, being wheeled on a white gurney down a white hallway into the blinding lights of the operating room, the only darkness in a gauntlet clutching her hand. The touch gave her the strength to trust in surgery, to trust that she wouldn't die before she'd changed the world. It was all thanks to him that she was here and had made it this far. Graverobber, Graverobber...
If she'd been awake, she would have heard the commotion, the clamor, the shouts, the protests of all the machines monitoring her, for her heart was expiring. She would have seen a preparation of scalpels and needles and suction. Graverobber arrived to see her being carted out on wheels, an oxygen mask over her nose and mouth, her head with its oversized wig lolling, and he dropped the vase, the glass shattering, water pooling around his boots.
He approached the Senator with extreme temerity. “You can't do this!”
“It's what she wants,” he shrugged. “It's done. We're saving her life; you should thank me.”
“Not the kid, please,” Graverobber pleaded, grabbing his arm.
“Kid? Kid? You're living with her, conducting an adult relationship with her, and you call her that, of all things? Curious. Take your hand off me,” he said.
Graverobber wrenched his hand away, tugging his arm in the process. “Fuck you. What I have with her is none of your goddamn business.”
“Language,” he scolded, though he was rolling up his sleeves. “Kindly leave before I do something we'll both regret.”
“You can't keep me from her anymore,” Graverobber said, and made a move to stride past him and grab at the gurney as it was passing.
The Senator, though he was shorter, suddenly had a surprisingly strong grip on his coat. He growled, struggled, wheeling his arms, and then stomped backwards onto the man's boot. All that did was earn him a muffled curse. Thrown to the floor and landing on his back, Graverobber panted, and then hospital security, or maybe it was bodyguards, had rough hands on him, all over, and no matter how he struggled and punched, the last he saw of Shilo was her bare feet sticking out from under the sheet as she disappeared into the lights of the operating room, all while he yelled her name, a thing he'd seen in a graveyard.
Shilo was going to be addicted to Zydrate and it was his fault. Shilo was going to die because he hadn't protected her. He'd failed every friend he'd ever had, and she was so much more than a friend. They tossed him out on his ass. He spent the next six hours trying to sneak back in. Tried, and failed.
The sun shone through the window and fresh flowers rescued the surgical recovery room from being overwhelmed by the smell of medicine and sick. They finally deemed it safe to let the young celebrity from across the water resume breathing on her own. When she opened her eyes, she wasn't alone, but she wasn't with who she'd anticipated. The pain was gone. The numbness that had crept over her lips was also gone. Relieved, she didn't speak up yet, looking instead out the window, the sunshine on her face.
Finally: “Where's Graverobber?”
The Senator, looking tired and sporting a camouflage leisure suit, sighed. “I won't lie to you, Shilo Wallace. He was angry that you elected to have the surgery, and at me for – in his mind–pressuring you. He tried to stop you from having the life-saving procedure and we asked him to leave. It wasn't pretty.”
“Here.” He offered a cup of ice chips. She trembled when she took it, and she hadn't realized she was parched until she felt the ice melt into cracks on her lips and seep onto a dry tongue.
“I'll be here in his stead,” he promised. “I've canceled all my engagements for the week. You are my priority.”
She was too shaken to question it.
Chapter 11: Cheshire Cat
Graverobber stood in the street, hands planted on the edge of his pockets, glaring up at the penthouse where he and the kid had been put up. Fuck, maybe the Senator had a point and it was creepy to refer to the fuckable little ingenue as “kid.” Then again, old habits die hard. She wouldn't be there, making it very much not home. The bed would be empty, the air quiet without her tinny voice, her boots not strewn on the floor for him to trip over. A bleak thought, indeed. There was nowhere else to go, unfortunately, and so he strode up to the entrance... to make eye contact with a burly guard bearing a stun gun, a shiny badge flashing on his hip. Graverobber skidded to a halt.
“I wouldn't,” the guard said. An ugly man, with a Charlie Chaplin mustache and a gut like a hibernating bear, he covered his profound ugliness with cologne that smelled like tobacco and apricots.
“You gonna stop me?” he sneered, curling his lip.
“That's what they're paying me for,” he agreed, running his thumb over his gun like a beloved pet. He looked like the sort who enjoyed making people squeal and thrash like red-blooded swine.
“I live here,” he said, exasperated.
“Yeah? Go tell it to the papers. I'm sure they'd be on the side of a criminal and a cradlerobber. Leave the girl alone.”
If he'd had any faith in the heart of man, he'd have told him that he couldn't do that, not in his lifetime. Why, for love, of course. He was all she had in the entire world, and all he had faith in was her heart. This society conspired against them in the most insidious ways, tearing and pricking at their confidence, but couldn't separate what they had from the fabric of their lives. She loved him. He knew it. She had to know he loved her. He'd left Sanitarium Island for her, only for her.
He could rough up this guy, easy, he told himself. What was a black eye in the face of Shilo's well-being? What was a bloody lip if it meant he could kiss her goodnight? All it would take was one punch to the head to knock him prone, knock him out cold.
Of course, if this guy went down, ten more would show up in his place with real guns. He was no use to her riddled with holes.
There was nothing for it save to turn around and beat a graceful retreat with the eyes of the law's henchman on him. He didn't bother turning around until he had disappeared into an underground subway. No one bothered following him. Out of sight and out of mind, someone like him wasn't important enough to put a tail on. He glowered and swore to the heavens he'd prove the bastards wrong, every one of them. They were all fools, truly, to underestimate him. In the end, he and Shilo would be together.
He'd have to make something of himself in this new world of the United States. For starters, he needed to come up with some cash. Towards sunset, he was sitting in a nook underneath the city, rifling through his ill-begotten cash. There was nothing like a wad of green to make a man feel bold, the smell of government trickling down into deserving pockets. Damn right he deserved it. Right now he wanted meat, something he didn't have to dig half-eaten out of the trash.
On his way out, he caught sight of himself in a broad puddle of rainwater, the very same puddle that splashed his coat and wet his boot and pant leg on the right side when he inadvertently stepped right into it. It rained clean, pure water here across the sea, the better to feed the green grass and growing trees. His reflection gave him pause in the worst way: his hair matted, face smudged with dirt, clothes damp. He couldn't have smelled great either. To check, he lifted an arm and ducked his head, coughing in response to the acrid odor assailing his nostrils. Graverobber was one ripe old man, in no state to win any damsel's heart.
A sojourn to and stripped down splash in a public fountain and the necessity of new clothes in the form of a tailor-made suit did wonders to lift his spirits and tuck his assets back into place. The men, women, and assorted others tending to his exterior could barely keep their hands to themselves, an undeniable fact that made him a little smug. With his hair freshly dyed all the vibrant colors of the rainbow and combed smooth down his back, he easily caught the attention of those he passed on the street as he sauntered and explored the city. These attentions were encouraged by his easy grin and an errant wink. He could have sworn one woman fainted dead away. No one knew the name of the mysterious, charming fellow known a world over as Graverobber. He could finally see why Shilo enjoyed shopping and pampering herself; he felt a new man in a new life. It left just enough money for a juicy steak and gravy fries, plus dessert and a trip to the theater. Whistling, he ambled downtown.
Reality came crashing in with him sitting in a plush booth by candlelight, watching a veiled woman sing on the spotlit stage. She crooned about lost innocence and, of course, he thought about Shilo, in a recovery room, being fed poisonous lies and hidden painkillers. His jaw ached and realized he was clenching it hard enough to give him a headache.
Here he was, being as much a spoiled dandy as that fucking pompous Senator, acting like he didn't have a care in the world. It was a mirage of being a bachelor, as if that was what he wanted anymore. The only thing he wanted was for her to be safe and happy... and living with him, of course. He couldn't very well let her go after all they'd been through together. The steak was suddenly no more than dead flesh in his mouth, however tender a morsel it was. He couldn't finish it, and left with most of it in a bag. Passing a homeless man on the street, he set the leftovers along with twenty dollars at his feet. Enough to put him up for the night, maybe. Fucker didn't even look up at him, only grunted.
However, this left Graverobber with empty pockets until he could get more with the next grift. He'd go back to the nook he'd found in the underground, with the rumble of the subway and the lights from the station eking in. Less comfortable nights had been spent in worse places in his life, though not in as dour of a mood. Luckily his mind was agile and he could navigate his way back in the dark, though the paths he trod that day were new to him. That was a skill he'd honed through years of mischief and skullduggery.
He heard the click clack of heels behind him. When he turned a corner, they turned with him. When he slowed, they slowed. Not a cop, for he'd never heard of a pig busting through a door in pumps, therefore most likely no one to fear. He was nearing the end of his patience. The city had been cruel and kind, but right then he wanted to be left alone with his thoughts to make his next plan.
“What do you want?” he demanded, turning around and grabbing her by the arm so she couldn't slip away.
The singer from the restaurant stared back at him, seemingly unafraid. She didn't even have the decency to tremble. When curiosity got the better of him and he peeled back the black, lace veil, her beauty was obvious, the sort that came from good, blue-blooded breeding rather than engineered on the edge of a knife, the exception being a carved upturn in her nose. Blonde hair streaked with silver fell in fluid wisps to her collar. She wore a trench coat to protect her waifish form from the chill or, more likely, from unwanted eyes.
A younger man in terms of experience rather than years, one who had been through less turmoil and been less in love with an elusive goth girl, would have swept her off her feet and into a nearby alley at once. Instead he threw down the gloved arm held aloft between them and repeated, angrier than ever, “I said, what do you want? You deaf?”
“You really have no idea who I am,” she said, mystified. Her eyes were a steel grey and unwavering in focus.
“Forgive me, I'm new in town,” he sneered.
“My name is Beatrice. I saw what you did for that beggar. It was unusual,” she said. “I wanted to thank you for an unexpected gesture of humanity.”
“Funny. You'd be the first.” He snorted and leaned back on one leg to look her over. She came from money. “You don't know who I am?”
“Sure. You came here with Shilo Wallace, the survivor of the Genetic Opera. I won't lie to you, Graverobber; you impress me.”
“Oh?” Then you're a fool, he thought to himself. A fool who clutched at the fame and notoriety sticking to others and reckoned charity meant a damn thing to the world.
“Yes. If I'm correct, and I'm sure I am, you and Miss Wallace are done for as a couple. She's too important politically even for a reformed, polished criminal. But I don't have that problem. In fact, we could use someone like you. Come by the Moonlight Sonata and ask for me if you're intrigued. If not, then it was a pleasure making your acquaintance, Graverobber.” She smiled, the kind with lips stretched to show all her teeth.
Cheshire Cat, he thought, disarmed by that smile. That made Shilo little Alice, tumbling through this Wonderland. Exactly like the Cheshire Cat, the moment he wasn't paying attention Beatrice disappeared, leaving nothing behind but an unsettled impression and the remnants of lilac perfume.
Shilo had never believed in a God that touched people's lives, so she didn't know who she prayed to when she prayed for Graverobber to come back. Every hour, drifting in and out with her finger stubbornly avoiding the dial to up the dosage, she looked for him at her bedside. The Senator was a constant, making the recovery room as serene as possible. It was hard to resent him simply for being there for her.
It didn't stop her from trying.
At her request, he helped her avoid the temptation to medicate, even when her stitches were tight, even when she swore she could feel her heart breaking. It will pass, he told her, and then they played hangman, chess, jacks. He ate the crusts off her ham and cheese sandwich and helped take the lid off her tapioca pudding when her hands shook too much to negotiate packaging.
The resentment eased. It had been a full day and not a terrible one. The Senator put down the phone with a heavy sigh. “I didn't want to tell you this,” he said.
“Tell me anyways,” she said. “Is it about Graverobber?”
He nodded, grim. “He hasn't been back at your residence. No one knows where he is.”
Though she knew it was foolish, she blamed herself. He was traumatized by losing friends and loved ones to surgery, and she'd consented to surgery without fully talking it through with him. In his mind, it would be a betrayal.
Her father had told her that nothing ever lasts in this world. The pain in her chest had nothing to do with having gone under the knife, not this time. This was all emotion, raw and ripping out of her heart. She thought he had been different, the man she loved. She thought he loved her enough to go through hell. One hospital visit had been enough to shatter that illusion.
Swallowing tears, she looked at the Senator and said, “It doesn't matter. I had a good day.”
“Really?” he said, and smiled.
Chapter 12: Jeremy
The Senator was absent that day, having excused himself to return to his office on some urgent matter. Shilo almost missed his company; instead, she chatted with the nurses, even signed a couple of autographs. It was better than complete isolation.
“Alright, sister, let's get you up out of bed,” one nurse insisted, helping her into a robe to cover her backside. Beside the hospital bed was a walker, one she was expected to practice with. She pushed down the sheet and stumbled out of bed, testing her slight weight on wobbly legs, found purchase on the tile in socked feet. Leaning heavily on the walker, she was met with encouraging smiles and a thumbs up from a candy striper arranging flowers in her room. They went up and down the hallway, the nurse pretending to jog beside her and cheering her on, wheeling her IV cart alongside. Every step hurt without painkillers, yet it only made her more determined not to take Zydrate, then or ever.
When she was a little girl, her dad read her a story: The Little Mermaid. Her fins traded for feet, each step hurt as if she were dancing on knives, but she danced to make her beloved prince happy. Shilo hadn't found it a romantic story, having dealt with her own pains for as long as she could remember. Now she nursed a secret ache, one that had nothing to do with her heart transplant. She'd been abandoned. After a lifetime of a clinging caregiver, this absence became an abscess. How fitting that she'd lost her original heart when her original love had ripped himself from her life right around the same time.
As she paced the intensive care unit, she paid no heed to the clicking of security cameras, the audible rotation of their cogs. Another thing she was used to: surveillance. Graverobber thought she didn't realize, didn't see the obvious signs. She was monitored everywhere, not just by the press. The nurses watched over more than vitals.
It wouldn't even bother her if they reported back to the Senator. At least it meant he cared. Shilo needed someone to care, whether motivated by their career or their conscience, and when the hall doors opened, who did she see but the Senator in a royal blue suit, trailed by Rachel in impressively platformed boots. She had an electronic tablet in hand and quickly checked items off some form.
“Shilo, you're out of bed!” he beamed. He rushed forward to catch her when she stumbled for a moment. Then his face dropped and he said, “I'm so sorry, I wasn't able to dissuade him from visiting.”
“Dissuade who? Graverobber?” she asked hopefully, her heart beating faster- not knowing if it was from his touch or the mention of her ex-boyfriend.
“Let's get you back in bed. Nurse?” he said, nodding at the nurse standing off to the side. The woman blushed when he addressed her and fidgeted with her hair before remembering to attend to Shilo, helping her turn around and head back towards her room. He helped situate her in bed, stuffing a pillow into place to support her back. Rachel perched off to the side, trying and failing to blend in. The assistant was a beautiful, exotic bird, with her long legs and tumbling, shining mahogany curls. It was a mystery to a Shilo why she had been shuttled into clerical work; she seemed better suited to modeling. Then again, she obviously lacked grace, though every time Shilo saw her she was wearing precarious footwear... just the latest in a long line of obviously bad decisions that had landed her in servitude. It was sort of disgusting, since she had kids to care for.
She reminded herself, again, to try not to judge too harshly. These were, if not her friends, at least allies. They'd been there for her when no one else was. Presently these allies of hers were looking especially nervous, both of them fidgeting and avoiding eye contact with her. She snapped her fingers to make them look.
“What's going on?” she asked. “Is Graverobber visiting?” She hated the longing in her voice. Hated how her eyes kept darting to the door for a sign of his big, dirty boots, keeping her ears trained for the sound of his baritone. She loved his voice. It was lovely, rich, refined as the rest of him was coarse and rough.
“Er, no,” Rachel said. “The Senator did his very best to keep your exact location quiet, but he insisted.”
“Rachel, shh,” he said, raising his finger insistently to his lips. “Shilo, in about a minute the President is going to walk through the unit doors. I'm very sorry. We did all we possibly could, you must believe me. My office was being inundated.”
“It's fine,” she said, and then the doors whooshed open once again, and the hum of his high-powered, wheeled chariot could be heard from the hall, and secret service filed into the room ahead of him, inspecting the place and forcing Rachel and the Senator to have seats on the far end of the room, by the flowers and well wishing balloons and giant, novelty cards. They looked sufficiently cowed. Shilo would not be.
She had had her heart ripped out in more ways than one. She had left the only home she had never known to start over and make a difference in the new world. This old man would not dictate her attitude or her behavior, not after that humiliating first encounter. She reclined, straightened her wig on her scalp, and crossed her arms over her chest.
The President was unrecognizable, save for his piercing eagle eyes. This time he looked sort of like a vampire, with a bad hair transplant of a black ponytail and purple talons. “Miss Wallace,” he rasped. The air was cooler with him in the room; she brought the blanket higher up her body, swaddling herself for comfort. He would not cow her. She would not let him. “You haven't the faintest idea the pains I went through to find you.”
“Sorry to be a pain,” she said sarcastically. She could have sworn she saw the hint of a smile. It was more unnerving than if he had scowled. “What do you want? Can't you see I'm in recovery from a major operation?”
“Did you never learn to respect your elders?” he scolded. “Of course, I remember Rotti Largo. The man was a prima donna, and fanatical in his need for adoration. I do not share his burdens.” His eyes twinkled his amusement.
“How nice for you,” she said. “I don't see what that has to do with me. You know this is a hospital, right? For sick people?”
“We're all sick, Shilo,” he said. “Society is diseased beyond the flesh. Rotti thought music could save humanity, that appearances could uplift. The only thing that matters is reputation. Do not mistake that with needing to be loved.” He smiled, grim and full. “People are wondering where you've been. Your Senator friend has been suppressing photographs from surfacing. They will think you've died or been spirited away.”
“Thank you,” she said in an aside to the Senator. “I'm assuming you want me to make a statement to the opposite effect? That I'm hale and hearty?”
“Precisely. If you were seen with me, that would be all the better. I may not be loved, but I am trusted.” He reached out a hand and touched the corner of her blanket, fingered it between his thumb and pointer, evaluating the quality. “You should not languish in some hospital room. Let me give you the connections you will need to recover. Have they given you your Zydrate prescription as of yet?”
“No, no Zydrate,” she said. “I'll do an appearance with you if it means so much to you. I'll do things my way. No opiates.”
He danced his hand in the air. There was a disquieting grace to his movements, and he spoke with his hands and the inclinations of his head. One of the security staff produced a phone, converted it into a phone, and grabbed Rachel by the elbow, guiding her to her feet. “Interview them,” he said, his voice robotic.
“Oh, er, yes,” she said. “What should I... Oh!” Her tablet alerted, receiving a new document. If Shilo had to hazard a guess, they were sample interview questions. She read them over and gave the 'okay' sign when she was ready.
“Don't be nervous, my dear,” the President said to her. “If you stutter, I'll have someone edit it out before publication. You are a nervous thing, aren't you?”
“No sir, I mean yes sir, I mean-” Rachel sputtered, her eyes wide and cheeks flushed. “I'm ready. Shilo, how are you feeling? Is it true you're refusing Zydrate?”
The President had wheeled himself to her side, genial at best, most likely aiming for paternal. He squeezed her shoulder to remind her to answer. The Senator, sequestered in a corner behind strong bodies, looked glum. Almost petulant. She smiled for his sake. “I'm feeling much better,” she said. “I don't need Zydrate. The staff here has been wonderful. I have to mention the support of my dear friend, the Senator.”
She relished the way the smug smile slid off the President's face, and how the Senator's smile was as lit up as a Christmas tree on tv.
Graverobber couldn't stay away. What a miserable sucker he was turning out to be; always had to chase the most promising lead, follow the white rabbit down the winding path into a bloody Wonderland. The songstress had invited him the night before after their first encounter, and while in his heart he longed only for one, in his mind he knew he had discovered a key to this city's underground; to status, power, and opportunities. Meeting with her would take him places. He straightened the tie on his very fine suit and examined himself in the reflection of a store window.
The store bustled within of customers, brightly colored wares, and artful displays in gold and greens, in plants and art deco installations. A young girl caught him looking in, did not realize he was looking mostly at his own image, and smiled sweetly at him. He offered her a blown kiss and a low bow, and she blushed. It was nice to know, for the sake of his ego, that he still had that ineffable charm. She was still standing there with shining red features as he sauntered on his merry way. A university-aged boy rested on the side of the next block, his hat extended in hand for passersby to drop coin into.
Graverobber did indeed drop a coin and stood there, waiting for him to look up and thank him. The lad may have been exhausted from his studies of panhandling and sound asleep, for he did not react to the clink of silver striking silver. It occurred to him that he didn't exactly know which direction to take to find the Moonlight Sonata. He cleared his throat and tapped his foot to get his attention. “Good sir, if I could trouble you for assistance,” he said.
“No, sorry, the blowjob factory is closed,” the lad said. He peeked up at Graverobber through a mop of red hair and did a double-take at his stature, his elegance, his everything. “'Course, buy me a beer and I might reconsider.”
“I'm flattered,” he mused. “Not what I had in mind. I'm looking for a place, a real happening club. The Moonlight Sonata. Have you heard of it?”
His unnaturally baby blue eyes bulged. “No,” he said. “No. Stay away. I mean, stay back.” He held up one hand, his sleeve falling back to show ugly needle and razor scars on his arm, covered up with tattoos of birds and flowers.
“Easy,” he said. “I'm not going to hurt you.” He took a knee. “Do you know who I am, little man? Look at me. Focus. There will be a test.”
“You- you're one of the visitors from the rotten island,” he stammered. “Came here with Shilo Wallace, the heart of the island. What do you want with the Moonlight Sonata?”
“I was invited.” The boy was pale and sweaty, and when he reached to touch his forehead, he found him clammy and feverish. “How long have you been in withdrawal?”
“It's not that,” he said. “I'll... show you the way to that club, but you gotta do something for me.”
“Thought you said the blowjob factory was closed,” Graverobber teased half-heartedly, concerned in spite of himself, in spite of everything he'd learned. “What do you need, kid?”
“Tell my mom I'm sorry,” he said. His eyes were bloodshot, hands trembling. He was not well.
He got the directions, as well as the kid's home number. Seemed people here used landlines. A call from a phone booth resulted in a woman picking up, anxiously asking if it was Jeremy, Jeremy, please answer, oh God. Recent sobs were in the back of her voice. Graverobber almost couldn't do it. The words stuck somewhere in the middle, in the dead space between their lines. Finally, he relayed to her what he had seen, where her son was, that he was sorry, and that he desperately needed her help. He no doubt would resist help, but Graverobber had to try regardless. It was Shilo's influence, and it was the undying impulse in him to be better than his former friends and lovers: Amber Sweet, who ignored and paved over problems with publicity and renovations; Dizzy, who acted only in her own best interests, who manipulated to try to win the love she craved. Fuck 'em all. The world may have gone down in flames and rot. That didn't mean humanity needed to die with it. Shilo at his side or no, he would fight.
Retracing his steps past where Jeremy had been, he saw an ambulance leaving the scene, and a woman in a house dress on her knees in prayer. He shoved his hands in his coat pockets, tucked his head down against the sirens and the drizzle of rain, and headed on towards the Moonlight Sonata to keep his meeting with Beatrice. One dead or dying kid couldn't matter, make him falter. He had to keep moving.
The rain picked up, and here he was caught without protection. He raised the back of his coat over his head to keep it off his prized rainbow locks. That left his ass exposed. There were worse things in the world than a soggy bottom. At the moment, though, it was a hell of an irritation. The makeup blurred on his eyes, blinking in his vision like tears. The building itself caught him by surprise, a small, flickering neon sign in Zydrate blue lettering announced its presence and, with an arrow, showed the way underground, into a warm glow and soft classical music. He paused on the perimeter, outside of a red door, to fix his makeup and shake rain off his tail feathers.
It was showtime.
Chapter 13: Shooting Stars
The change was effective immediately. At once, letters began to pour in, fanmail from those who had seen the broadcasted interview and recognized the local hospital. Shilo would have bemoaned the loss of privacy had the perks not been so numerous. The letters were more than kind; they were adoring, reminding her again that she was a celebrity as much as a hero. The following night, some anonymous benefactor sent her a cheesecake with strawberries – artificial, of course- and a large pepperoni pizza. The President was long gone, his exit abrupt, terse from her technical cooperation and actual defiance. Her father would not have approved of her poking the bear. It was too fun to rebel for her to resist.
The Senator and Rachel stayed with her late into the night to help her sort letters and presents, and devour the pizza; the latter was, they claimed, to be sure it wasn't poisoned or otherwise laced with something unpleasant. The starched furniture became a mess of saucy napkins and grease spots where the cheese dripped, and Rachel confessed that she hadn't splurged like that in a long time. She unlatched the loops on the front of her corset and patted her food baby with a happy groan, kicking up her long legs on the window ledge. The Senator dabbed oil off his neatly trimmed facial hair, then gathered up their napkins and plates to dispose of in the bin, crushed the pizza box to be recycled, and did so while lecturing them on the environmental cost of eating badly all the time.
“It's not all the time,” Rachel protested. “This is a very special occasion, sir.”
“Right,” Shilo agreed, biting into a strawberry. It tasted real and red, tart and sweet. She might never have known the difference if it weren't labeled as one hundred percent man-made berries. “You pissed off the President. That's got to be out of the ordinary, even for someone like you.”
“What do you mean by someone like me?” he asked, a smirk tugging at his lips. She balked and stammered, and Rachel shoved up off her seat, giggling and reaching into her purse for her phone. It had not, however, rung once.
“I do believe my husband's calling me. Could be the kids, you know,” she said, an obviously flustered fib, and dashed out of the room, her freckled brown skin turning a shade of nectarine.
“So, someone like me. Whatever could that mean?” He squeezed antiseptic onto his hands and rubbed vigorously, palms squeaking. “Someone conscientious and active in his community?”
Shilo grinned and shrugged. “Certainly, why not?” The moment passed long between them, her heart – the one that had been installed in her chest– beating a staccato. Inside, a shred of guilt festered in her gut, and a voice began to echo: Graverobber, Graverobber, you still love Graverobber. Ever her father's daughter, she could not ignore the voice of her guilt, though hers was only her conscience, not an executive mobster or psychosis. Her smile faded and she slunk back into the crisp pillows, her heartbeat gradually coming slower, breaths less painful with each one drawn. Shilo poured herself a cool glass of water and sipped from the straw, even those minute movements tugging on the IVs tucked and taped under the skin of her hand. She wanted to walk outside, to pee in a bathroom with a door that locked, but most of all to lie in bed next to the man she loved.
He was the one who'd left her first. There was only so long she could wait, only so long her tethers would stretch to meet his fucking abandonment issues.
Mercifully, the Senator said nothing, his features knitted in tactful concern. He didn't put a hand on her knee, or ask where she'd gone off to, where their moment had gone, what about him. No, he respected her silence and her distance. She wished she could tell him that it wasn't a sullen silence; she wasn't punishing him for flirting. She was punishing herself for her divided heart, for her confused loyalties. The stories always said there was one true love, that the man who fought for the pretty girl would always fight for her and that was that. That went double, maybe even triple, for stories with virginity and virginity willingly given. He'd even said he loved her. Shilo counted herself lucky that she'd never thought to say it back. Those three words had died in her dad's arms.
Rachel startled both of them by popping her curly head back in and declaring with bubbling glee, “Shilo, you have to come see this!”
They called a nurse to help Shilo out of bed; she moved more or less freely with a walker's help and the IV cart rolling alongside her. The nurse said that it had been kept in the break room for Christmas parties, and wasn't it lucky the Senator's liaison had stumbled into said break room and seen it. Shilo kept all questions to herself, preferring to savor her piqued curiosity. They stepped over the threshold into the slightly heated break room, revealing an espresso machine, a refrigerator, and a karaoke machine plugged in and ready for her.
Shilo knew a microphone when she saw one. She also knew a set-up when she'd walked into one. Stammering again that she'd never sung in front of others, she found she had nowhere to go but forward with those that had accompanied waiting behind her. Rachel clapped her hands and said she would go first, if it would help Shilo's nerves. “I'll make a fool of myself so you can see how easy it is!” she laughed.
The Senator fixed the nurse a coffee and offered her a chair. She would need to stick around for Shilo's sake, he argued, and they needed more than one person for it to feel like a real audience. The nurse relented and perched on the edge of a chair not far from the main attraction, taking the cup when he pressed it into her open hand.
Rachel chose an oldie, a song by a band that Shilo was of course familiar with: Queen. She did not have the confidence or the breath support to rock out hard, though if she could award points for bursting into fits of giggles and blushing, Rachel would be the best performer ever. The end seemed to come as a relief to her, stumbling away from the machine, pushing back her hair, and fanning herself like she'd had a good fuck instead of a bad vocal performance.
The machine added a soft, electric hum to the room, quiet save for the nurse slurping coffee and the bubblegum Rachel was now chomping like cud. Shilo, summoning a strength she didn't know she had, shoved away the walker so it crashed into the wall, whipped off her wig to show a pixie cut's worth of fine brown hair, and shot the nurse with a grin. She'd been practicing nearly her whole life for this moment.
“Have you got any Blind Mag songs?” she asked.
She could almost swear there was a spotlight following her progress, and that the lights dimmed a little when she stepped up, step right up, and lowered the microphone to meet her lips. Eat the microphone, she knew that much from watching people on tv, and since she hadn't a hope or prayer at meeting Mag's high notes in an operatic number she had selected a more commercial, pop ballad advertising a line of flesh tones. Directing her eyes at no one specifically, she sang her little heart out, every part of her flushed with adrenaline, tight with focus. The words came easily, muscle memory to her mouth. At the bridge of the tune, she thought of all the loved ones and their lies she'd lived through to get to this point, a state of the art hospital in a land across the dead sea, alone but befriended, hopeful and terrified of a future she could not predict.
She would relish every minute of independence. With her voice and Mag's words, she was making herself a promise: never to be tied down by or needing anyone, never to lose sight of who she was. Shilo swore to be true to herself, her alone and strong. If she shed the baggage of her past, then this surgery, this new heart could be her fresh start.
By the time she finished belting, more people had gathered to listen to her sing, and before she knew it the room was full of hospital staff and more active faces. All she could do when they clapped for her was beam like the morning sun and offer a bow. Everyone in the room would have agreed that she was a glittering, shining thing crossing their horizon that night.
Graverobber was everything he should be and had ever been: inquisitive, fastidious, ruthless. Without an underage bird to watch out for, he was free to investigate his way. The place hit him in the face with the smells of sweat and flowing liquor, and the heavy bass of dance music, drilling through his brain. Of course it was suitably dark, lit with lighting at his feet and flowing up in neon orange and red and gold. Along the wall opposite the coat closet (where he checked in his coat to a bespectacled person in lingerie) he found inlaid filigreed details. He drew the back of his hand along it, tracing the fine work. This building was old and rich as fragrant cheese.
Down another set of stairs led to the innards of the club itself, a dance floor where the lights and rhythm pulsed a lurid, throbbing beat. Girls in PVC and lace gyrated through the bars of cages; on second glance, some of them were barely conscious, moving through the last remnants of intention before the instinct of snoring took over their scantily clad forms. He took a drink from a passing tray, paying no mind to the boy proffering it, and took a swig of something that would have been strong enough to put hair on his chest were he not already wearing a vest of his own hair. As it were, he was more than man enough to put the drink back, and so he did. He let out a soft whoop, releasing his inner sorority babe.
This left him with the glass to hold daintily as he surveyed the room. A girl with a mohawk accompanied the dance music with a ferocious bout of violin, her energy unmatched by the sleepy efforts of the dancers.
They were doped. He sniffed the glass in hand with newfound suspicion and could detect nothing amiss. Still he kept up his guard and sauntered, in one case grabbing a cigarette from an outstretched hand before it burned another person's fluorescent neon wig. “Party on, nitwits,” he sighed, patting the wig on the head.
A hand tapped him on the shoulder. He turned to see the girl. Woman. What was her name. She was looking at him expectantly, and he got a whiff of her floral perfume, following her in a soft cloud.
“Graverobber,” she said. “What do you think of my party?”
He took a dramatic sniff and looked slowly from side to side, pretending to take in the room for the first time. “I've seen livelier,” he mused. “Is there a reason everyone here is in dreamland?”
“Of course,” she purred, and took his hand in her gloved one. The difference in size from Shilo was, frankly, laughable; she was tall and delicate as a bird, her touch light yet insistent. Her name came to him in a flash as his gaze traveled down her body to settle on her round ass. Beatrice, the Cheshire Cat.
She led him into a back room, an office or den of sorts, where folks counted cards, counted chips and cash, and smoked bitter, expensive cigars. “My family,” she explained quickly, and he wondered if she was embarrassed of where she came from, as he was. An unwelcome twinge of empathy tweaked at his heartstrings and he forced his line of thought back to the mostly drugged people lurking in the club, spending money and drowning in their drinks. He thought of poor dying Jeremy, and of Shilo sick in a hospital bed, and his hold on the singer's palm was clammy and weak.
“My father,” she said, coming to a stop. “My mother is at home. She's not directly involved in the business.”
Graverobber was met with a thin, reedy man in a key lime green leisure suit, paisley ascot and pocketsquare, and blonde hair combed over a sunburned head. He had a smiling face; a smile could mean anything. Graverobber wiped his hand on his pants like an adolescent before pumping his hand. “And what business would that be?” he asked.
“The same one you're in, Graverobber,” he said.
“I left that life back on the island,” Graverobber tried to say, only for him to clap him on the shoulder, shaking off rainwater that still stubbornly clung, and interrupt.
“Yes, and we want to invite you back into this world. You were the best, weren't you? Evaded execution, had heiresses chasing after you. Sowed some wild oats, if I understand,” he said.
“No, see, I've gone straight. The kid...”
“Shilo Wallace? A sweet girl, that's another good mark towards your character. They won't let someone sway her from being who they want her to be. Those politicians won't let harm come to her, and unfortunately they think you're the harm. Work with us, and we may be able to raise your status enough to mingle in her lofty circles again. Consider it a perk.” The man sat and Beatrice pulled out a chair for Graverobber. “At least hear us out.”
He hadn't had a better offer of late, and this was the mystery almost solved without him even trying, so he sat and eased in the chair to prop his elbows on the velvet. “Alright, fine. I showed up, didn't I? And... I'll listen. But no promises.”
Beatrice stood beside them, silent, the lights catching the spangles on her dress, the crystal pins in her fair hair. She was more than an ornament; any idiot could ken that. The girl was keen, keeping her attention trained on what unfolded before her. He could almost have admired her for that if he weren't so sore in his gut of women.
“I am Silas Casper. You've already met my heir, Beatrice. She fancies herself a humanitarian,” he chuckled, reaching out to pat her hand. She smiled warmly at her father, her features creasing in ways that so few did these days. Someday she would have wrinkles, the good kind. “That's the business we're in, helping people.”
“I was under the impression we were in the business of drug distribution,” he said wryly.
“Much the same. And, really, Graverobber, you wouldn't be taking your old job back. We are independent of the machinations of GeneCo. All of them. Including the necessity for graverobbers.”
“Not Zydrate, then?” he mused.
“Not Zydrate that's been filtered through the system. We have begun to engineer our own product. It's entirely artificial, not a byproduct. Man-made, human ingenuity.”
“Why are you telling me this?” he asked. “I could walk right out of here and tell everyone what you're doing. Don't you think that would get me in their good graces, too?”
“Oh, yes, and I'm sure they wouldn't beat and jail you for approaching,” he said, voice dripping with sarcasm. “Graverobber, you're as much a wanted man here as you ever were, without the posters. Stick with us, son. We'll scratch your back if you scratch ours.”