The bartender was young, probably barely out of school. He had a boyishly messy haircut and a nose which was slightly flat, and which scrunched up as he frowned in thought.
“Don’t think I know him,” he answered with half a shrug as he picked up another glass. “You think he worked here?”
The man on the other side of the bar trailed a fingertip over the rim of his own glass, still three-quarters full with moderately drinkable whiskey. He returned a shrug of his own. “Maybe. If he didn’t, maybe he came in. It's his part of town.”
The soaked rag in the bartender’s hand seemed barely more clean than the glass as he began to wipe out the inside. “Well no one who works here has left in the last few months, sorry. When did you say the guy took off again?”
“He was supposed to meet me a month back, always said he’d set me up with a job when I got into the city. But last I spoke to him was, huh.” He broke off for a few seconds. “Don’t remember. Mostly my brother spoke to him, not sure when exactly. A while maybe, actually.”
There was a clink as the now ostensibly cleaner glass was stacked onto a precarious-looking pile. A scrape as another was picked up. It was quiet in the bar, getting late enough that people were starting to peel off on account of work the next morning—the ones who had work, anyway. It was only Maréeday, which meant it was still early for the arrival of the mid-week blues. The few remaining occupied tables Berenger had already been through with the same questions.
“He told me he was working in Dockland,” Berenger continued as his gaze rested pensively on the surface of his mostly undrunk drink. “Told me to call him when I got in, but when I did the boarding house said he was gone.”
Another clink as the next glass was stacked. "You worried about him?"
Berenger swallowed, pulling back the sides of his mouth in not quite a smile. "Nah," he replied. "Probably owed someone too much money, sounds like him. Just wish he hadn’t decided to hide out now.”
“You really don’t know anything else about him?”
A shake of his head that pulled into another shrug. “He was my brother’s friend, we talked on the telephone but I never met him. And we only ever called him Dig. Don’t know his full name.”
“What happened to your brother?”
“Sorry.” There was true apology in the word.
The stack of glasses teetered suddenly and the bartender jumped, shooting out a hand to steady it. Then he stepped back again, hovered a second to check his stack had stabilised, and turned away without making any adjustment to it.
Berenger raised his whiskey to his mouth. He tipped it just enough that the liquid wet his lips, without taking a real sip, before saying, “I just wanted to see if anyone knows him. Who saw him last, if they knew what he’d gotten into. Don’t suppose you noticed a regular skipping out?”
The bartender’s nose scrunched again. After a few seconds’ thought he replied, “No, not that I noticed. Sorry. And I do know a lot of the regulars.”
“Alright then.” In a sharp motion, Berenger knocked his glass back properly this time and downed the rest of its contents. “Thanks. How much do I owe?”
The night air was cool when he pushed his way out the bar’s front door, after settling his very short tab. Just the side of cool which made it not entirely comfortable to walk in. Summer may have been getting started, but even summers in Arles were mild at best and tended to drop to chilly after dark. Pulling his thin coat more tightly about him, he set off at a brisk pace down the lane in the direction that would take him out of Dockland and closer to the centre of the city. It was late enough the buses had stopped.
The walk wasn’t a short one, long enough that someone with the money would have hailed a taxi. He let his gaze wander casually around him as the dingy and frequently abandoned shop fronts gradually turned more respectable, and gave way to the slightly more prosperous parts of the city. Keeping track of the opposite pavement, the reflections in the front windows of the street behind him, the dark shadows left by the quietly buzzing electrical streetlights, until he finally approached a somewhat shabby but mostly respectable older apartment building.
Satisfied that he hadn’t been followed, Detective Berenger Liege shouldered his way through the front door and took the stairs to his second-floor rooms.
- - -
The early edition of the Veretian Times cost two sols from the boy on the street corner. Berenger picked it up the next day after completing his morning exercise routine, on his way to the coffeehouse. He waited until he was seated at the corner booth with his first cup before unrolling the thinly-pressed sheets and setting them down on the table in front. Today’s barely unique variation on the only headline of the recent months greeted him in black block letters.
THREE WEEKS SINCE GRUESOME DISCOVERY OF FIFTH TORCHED VICTIM: TALLOW MAN STILL AT LARGE
It had actually been just on two-and-a-half weeks since the most recent body had been reported. A group of workers taking a shortcut home had noticed the lingering smell from one of the numerous unused warehouses in Dockland, and pushed past the broken lock of the entrance to find the burnt-out remnants of a single human form on a charred stretch of empty concrete. Almost exactly the same as the others, except for the fact that this body had seemed to have been there only a maximum of two days. The first four had each gone over a week or more without discovery. It wasn't very hard to not be found in the abandoned buildings of Dockland.
The southern district of Arles, far as it was from the coast and any actual docks, had gotten its name from its history as the shipping waypoint for all goods moving into the capital. A bustling cargo hub, until the economic downturns of the recent decade had left many of the shipping companies broke and vanished, and Dockland a partial ghost town of vacant storage hangers and hollow streets between them. It was there that Berenger had spent every night of his last week and more. Sometimes, walking through block after block of dark windows on every side, he'd felt like he could wander into that quiet maze and be forgotten like the hundreds of men and women who'd once worked within those empty walls. Evidently, five people in the last seven months had done just that.
Today's newspaper report was nothing new, another reiteration of the same known facts in luridly dire tones. That the bodies had been left beyond recognition. That the police still had no confirmed identifies for any of the victims, despite making wide public requests for the reports of any missing persons that may match the timeline of the killings. That the police believed, due to the lack of signs of struggle, that the victims had already been dead or senseless at the time they'd been set alight, but were unable to determine the cause of death from the quality of the remains. And, finally, that an alienist—interviewed in last week's article!—had speculated on the possibility that this deranged killer had some sort of sexual connection to the element of fire. Berenger read the segment in full nonetheless. Just in case there were any revelatory discoveries from intrepid investigative journalists, or confessions from people who'd gone to the papers with their statements instead of the authorities.
In a city like Arles, there were times the press had a better handle of the goings-on than the police. And the times they didn't they weren't far behind. It had been this paper who had, several months back, somehow managed to get a hold of a case photo of the third victim. It had run on the front page, cracked skin and tortured features inked out in grisly definition, and a name had run with it. Not the South Arles Stalker, as some had tossed around when news of a multiple murderer first emerged, nor even the more dramatic Dockland Monster. Next to the image of that distorted silhouette which had once been a living person, blackened like a candle wick, this name had stuck. Tallow Man.
Berenger finished the paper with the third free refill of his coffee. He tossed it into the bin by the door on his way, and made the short walk back to his building. The marked map of Dockland laid out across his dining table greeted him when he let himself into his apartment.
Hanging up his coat on the hook behind the door, Berenger sat down on his usual chair by the window and picked up the large notebook and pen he'd left on the sill. He'd already completed two pages of notes on the previous night’s bar after getting home before sleeping. With his legs crossed and the book resting over one knee, he set himself to the task of writing down the rest of everything he remembered.
The case had been handed over after the discovery of the fifth victim, after six months of the detectives at the station finding no one who'd seen anything useful around the crime scenes, making no matches of missing persons to victims, asking the lab three times a day if they had anything new and getting the same negative answer. Six months and, as the papers loved to say, they had next to nothing to go. And so it had been given to Berenger. The one in the back and on the streets, whose name and face didn't make it to the papers as this or that heroic officer.
There were five large red pins in the map on his dining table for the locations of the five bodies. And woven around and in between them were a scattering of smaller blue ones, for the social establishments in about twice the radius as the distribution of bodies. Attempts to identify the victims with missing persons had failed by normal means—expecting statements from friends, family, landlords, employers. Which left either the kinds of people who wouldn't be missed, or the kinds of people whose circle wouldn't go to the police.
The lab had managed something at least when it came to identifying the victims—all men, all above the age of thirty-five or so, all of average to large size. On narrowing down which walk of easily missable people these could have been, those details made prostitutes a less likely option. The homeless or unemployed population of Dockland, meanwhile, remained good contenders. If Berenger could pin down who was dead, maybe he could pin down how the Tallow Man was finding them, or choosing them.
He'd spent almost two weeks now canvassing the bars and clubs of the area with the story of his dead brother's friend, keeping his cover consistent but vague in case he ran into someone more than once. His goal was to coax out any mentions or anecdotes of people who might not have been seen around for a while. People who weren't reliable enough that their non-appearance would have actually assumed them missing, or dead. He wasn't there to question people as a cop. Anyone who had anything to report to a cop would have done so already.
So far, Berenger hadn’t found much. But he also hadn’t found nothing. He was coming close to the end of his list of places.
He finished his latest recount just before lunchtime, setting his notebook down to make himself a tomato sandwich. After he ate, he picked it back up to reread the pages he’d just written, and the previous ones too. Checking, again, if there was anything he'd missed. Any new connection he could notice.
When he'd done that for long enough the words were starting to lose significance in his mind, he took to tracing his gaze over the lines of the map. Over the narrow lanes and twisting alleys, the wider streets and criss-crossing byways. It was one of the oldest parts of the city, shaped by stumbling necessity and not careful planning. A poet might call it beautiful by some sense of the word. A cop would, and did, call it Arles’s gutter, puddled and stale with the bilge of the city.
Sometimes, when he was in a mood like this, Detective Berenger Liege found himself a bit of both.
- - -
He set out that evening after a dinner of beans and boiled potatoes, stepping out of his apartment just as the lights were starting to flicker on down the sides of the streets. He walked two blocks over to catch a bus heading south-east. His target tonight was a club further out, right up against the edge of the radius he’d drawn. On the interesting mixing pot of a border where Dockland backed up against Arles’s Akielon district.
By the time the bus arrived at his stop, the sky had dimmed to a murky grey. Berenger turned a small circle on the ground to orient himself after stepping off, to connect his surroundings with the map he’d already come to memorise. Then he took another moment to pull himself into his persona of a newcomer looking for his only acquaintance in the city.
The feel of this part of town was already different, as he set off on the ten-minute walk to the address he’d marked out earlier. The streetscapes were a little less rundown, with a few more lights on in the windows and dark silhouettes of people moving behind them. The others out and about around him were a touch more lively, not as lonely as the usual huddled groups of warehouse workers who dragged themselves home from gruelling jobs that they were thankful to still have. And, when Berenger turned down the last street to find the club’s front entrance standing boldly out before him, he realised with the same assuredness as the stark lettering of that name sign that this place was different too.
The front of the establishment was bare brick, but painted pure pitch black in thick coats. The placard across the top of the door was metal, also black, bearing the name in crisp white. So crisp it seemed almost too unlikely for the state of the surrounds.
There was also a man at the door. That wasn’t the norm around here, though neither was it unheard of—employing a few men to stand as security might be standard, but guards at the door projected an air of exclusivity most joints could hardly afford. This one wore a suit, black, simple but not shabby, well fit over his broad shoulders. And, Berenger saw as he approached close enough to discern the features of the man’s face under the closest streetlight, he was Akielon. He watched neither shifting from his post nor returning the nod of greeting as Berenger stepped past and let himself into the club.
The tones of a piano greeted him on the other side of the door, along with a waft of rich smoke. Not the usual fug of cigarettes but something bolder, sharper. A glance around the atmospherically lit inside quickly provided explanation, in the plethora of glowing red cigar tips that shone from the bar down to the tables on the floor, within the leather-lined booths that jutted out from the walls past the bar. At the end of the room opposite the bar, there was a raised platform of a stage. Currently empty. A winding spiral staircase sat just off the edge of it on one side, leading to a closed door and some upstairs area. On the other side was positioned a set of drums along with the piano, an upright with tarnished woodwork but—by the sounds of it—good tuning. The dark-haired pianist was lit by only a small lamp above the keys that looked like something for his own convenience more than a spotlight for the audience. He played an unflashy lilting tune that blended comfortably into the background of clinking glasses and murmured conversation.
It was no uptown jazz club. Not with the sparse decor, wood-panelled walls painted in a plain dash wash, adorned only the periodic functional-looking wall-mounted light. The fabric-lined booths might have been clean and smooth not too long ago, but their material was lightly patterned with stains and visibly patched and torn from use. Unevenly-sized round tables lay in an unordered sprawl between them, filled with rough-clad clientele, topped with as much whiskey and beer as there was wine or expensively-presented cocktails. No uptown club indeed, but it was a place that looked to promise a nice evening out. As the word was defined in Dockland.
Berenger headed for the bar first, seeing as traffic there was slow enough to afford the tender breaks. It was a nice bar, with clean glasses hanging upside-down over it and a rich assortment of bottles arranged above. Certainly not the bare wooden counter found in most of the establishments he’d recently visited. There was also an open box of cigars in the middle, just by where Berenger pulled himself out a stool to sit.
“Compliments of the house,” came the bartender’s voice as he noticed Berenger’s gaze on the box.
Berenger looked up. “Really?”
The bartender smiled. It was a small one, but genuine. “Please,” he said. “Take one.”
Berenger didn’t smoke, but complied nonetheless. They were Akielon cigars, he noticed as he picked one up and turned it over several times in his fingers. A well-known brand. A well-known expensive brand. It was a statement from the house, certainly, to give them out complementary.
“For later, I think,” he said, pocketing the cigar and giving a little quirk of his lips. “Thank you.”
“New here then, are you?” the bartender asked, taking a few steps closer. “What can I get you?”
“Whiskey, on the rocks.” Then, “Yeah, new in town actually.”
“Had a friend who was supposed to set me up,” Berenger began, and settled into his well-worn tale.
Over the next hours he finished up at the bar, and moved to making rounds of the tables and booths. The patrons were chatty, not like the mistrustful lone-wolf types that filled some of the other drinking holes around, but neither did they have any answers this night. The mix of clientele was healthy but, as he couldn’t help but notice, almost exclusively male—unusual in Dockland where every man and woman worked equally hard for their sols. A few tables required him to utilise his middling grasp of Akielon, which was passable, though he read the language better than he spoke it. Berenger kept listening, patient, lack of immediate help they were able to give him or no. Mentally filing the words away into memory.
Occasionally, as some would always do eventually, a conversation turned to recent events and the shadow in these parts. And as always, Berenger gently steered the talk away from the Tallow Man if ever it arose. Better, just in case, to not associate himself with that topic when he was already drawing attention with his persistent questions. It was always possible, on any given night, in the grimy nooks and rusted crannies of Dockland, that the killer themselves was indeed here somewhere. And the more time Berenger spent in those places, the more possible it became that the two of them could already be rubbing shoulders.
A little over two hours after his arrival, a section of lights closest to the door flickered off. Before Berenger had time to shift in surprise, the rest of the lights in the room began to follow, second by second, row by row, a downward staircase of illumination. The reaction of the occupants was immediate, voices quieted all around as rapidly as the descending dark. Until the last lamps went off, plunging the club into blackness except for the small dull glow behind the bar, and silent bated breath.
Then a different set of lights across the floor, an array of glowing red bulbs inset on the far wall, flared to life. On the newly lit stage, Berenger noticed for the first time a slim silver pole.
He did shift in his seat then. He’d heard, vaguely, about performances like these, both in the context of circus acrobats and discreet gentlemen’s clubs. Across the table, the two men he'd been idly chatting to had already dropped their attention from him, gazes affixed instead on the stage. A tickle of curiosity wormed its way up Berenger's spine.
The real entertainment of the night, it seemed, was about to begin.
The piano had quieted, its own lamp also dimmed away. In the red glow of the stage lights Berenger could make out the player getting up from his stool, then sitting himself down again at the drum set and taking up a pair of sticks. After a moment he struck up a roll on a high cymbal, barely breaking the silence with a waft of low yet piercing tones. Then slowly, unobtrusively, it built until it was a rolling wave of sound. On the other side of the stage, the door from the back opened.
A man stepped out—slinked out, more like, shiny leather high-heeled boots practically dragging across the floor instead of lifting as he walked. He wore a black shawl patterned in twinkling sequins that fell to his knees, which was further down his legs than the tops of his boots. His arms were clad in black gloves, as shiny as his boots, extending up past his elbows but leaving his fingers free. Long gold earrings hung from his ears, more than one on each side. And even under the coloured lights Berenger could tell that his loose long hair was a true flame red.
The drumming changed, striking up a steady but subtle rhythm that the performer fell into, slinking in perfect time to the pole. Just as he reached it there was a crash, a sudden up-kick in the beat as he grasped it, pushing off into a spin that he held in a pose as the pole itself pivoted on its axis. One booted leg hooked around the shining metal and the other extended with perfect grace out behind him.
It was an unusual performance. No music but only the thud and ring of percussion, perfectly choreographed with the dancer’s arches and kicks and twirls. And seeming to tap right into the collective racing pulse of the audience. For the first set of the routine, the pace remained steady, brisk but subdued. Then, it stepped up again.
At the tail end of one backward spin—head flung back, knees bent so that his heels brushed the tips of his hair—there was a sudden pounding of a bass drum. Three claps, abruptly loud, and then the dancer was dropping his torso even further back, leaning to kick his legs straight up over his head without his feet touching the ground. To the crash of a cymbal he wrapped both legs around the pole, hugging it from ankle to thigh, and at the same time let go both his hands. In a single fluid motion he caught his shawl as it fell downward off his upside-down form, slipping it past his head and tossing it away to the side. He was left hanging by only his booted legs, back arched as he continued to spin, arms flung out like the wings of a soaring bird.
There was a long rolling cheer from the crowd. It wasn’t entirely clear whether it was in praise of the dancer’s manoeuvre, or the fact that he was now clad in only a pair of small black briefs and a set of thin gold chains that dangled about the black choker around his neck. Berenger didn’t join the cheer. He’d moved neither his eyes nor any other muscle in his face since the dancer had taken the stage.
In the moves after that, the dancer seemed to glide up and down the pole at will. He hung suspended only by a bent knee, pulled himself vertical, flung himself into spins with his legs in perfect splits. His body was one moment fluid, the next immovably fastened against the pole. If this club had been the front to an exotic carnival, if this had been the stage show under a big top tent, then it wouldn’t have taken the magicians to convince Berenger of the existence of magic. It would have only taken this performance.
Finally, after some measure of time that had faded in importance compared to the beat of dancer’s accompaniment, the show came to an end. The dancer flipped his body through one last wide spin, then stood back upright on the pole. The drums crescendoed, then faded, until they dropped out just at the last note of the phrase to be replaced by the click of two heels hitting the ground.
There was silence. Then, there was uproar.
The dancer took two steps forward and, with a now familiar graceful arch of his spine, bowed to the warm applause and cheering of the crowd. Straightening with a smile about his deep red lips, he spun and slinked back off the stage, hair swishing behind his back. Sometime during that walk, Berenger unstuck himself to join in the applause.
This was an interesting place indeed.
The crowd quieted again after another minute, clapping fading out and a murmur of conversation fading back in as the stage lights dimmed. Lights flickered back on around them, though with every second row staying off so that the room returned only to half-light. Presumably the club was resetting for its next act. Berenger pushed himself away from the table with a few murmured excuses and goodbyes, and headed back toward the bar for another drink. He’d sat on his first glass for as long as possible. It was time to order a second before his behaviour began to seem unusual.
He was waiting for his next whiskey to be poured when a different set of lights flashed on, bright white and above the stage instead of behind it. Turning his gaze back, he saw, instead of the door behind the stage, the door at the top of the interior staircase swinging open. Another man emerged, lit bright by the room he was stepping out from. Berenger could make out the shape of a second man in the doorway behind him. Tall, very broad shouldered, and—if he wasn’t being fooled by the light—an Akielon.
Then the door swung shut, hiding the second man from view. And to another cheer of the crowd, the first began to descend the steps in open silver shoes with heels taller than the dancer’s, blond hair pulled back in a tight bun. Black leggings covered his long legs and a fishnet shirt did a much less effective job of covering his torso. He stopped by the side of the stage to pick up a microphone, which he brought on with him to set up at the front space before the pole. Casting a look over to lock eyes with the accompanist, who’d retaken his seat at the piano, he parted his glossed lips to sing.
The singer was good. Voice rich and throaty, he clearly had the appreciation of the patrons even as this act was a little more friendly to various tables continuing on with their conversations. Berenger picked up his second drink when the bartender passed it and turned back to the floor, scanning through them to see which groups were newly arrived and not yet questioned. There weren’t many but, landing on an available contender, he turned his attention away from the club performance and back to work.
It didn’t take a lot of time to get through the rest, even with everyone more prone to being distracted by the—admittedly very pretty—singer over answering his questions. This distraction got considerably worse when the singer began to stroll down from the stage at breaks in songs, weaving between the booths and tables to greet his audience, hips swinging subtly to the piano refrains. But even when that was over and the lights around the room replaced the stage spotlight once more, there were those amongst the crowd who required no blond performer for their distractions. Couples who, more and more so as the night had gone on, Berenger spied tucked together in booths or sometimes at the open tables. With it late enough that few new patrons were arriving, he made the decision to turn in for the night. His recent lot of questioning hadn’t revealed any more useful information than his earlier one.
He let himself out of the club to meet the gaze of the same doorman as before, who once more didn’t return his nod. Redoing the buttons of his coat, he made to stroll his way briskly down the street. He didn’t get very far before he found himself passing another huddled form half a block down. A form with long red hair billowing down his back.
The dancer was dressed in a long, well-fitting jacket, heeled boots exchanged for an ordinary but stylish pair for walking. He could hardly fail to miss the unsubtle double take that Berenger made, pausing in his stride in response so that the two of them fell level in step. An arched eyebrow twitched in tandem with his lips.
“You were in the audience,” he said. His voice was lower than Berenger had expected. He’d removed the makeup from his face, and close up Berenger could see that he was young but not very young. Out of his teens definitely.
“Yes. I didn’t think you could see the crowd with those lights.”
That gained a wider twitch of uncoloured lips. “I can see a lot.” Then, “Haven’t seen you around here before, though. First time?”
“Yes. New in town, actually.”
He wasn’t certain if Black Light was the kind of club whose employees also made offers of private rooms upstairs to certain paying patrons, but even so. The ones who performed, who earned their money off tips and playing their audience, might know their regulars even better than bartenders.
“Oh?” the dancer replied. Even in the single syllable, his tone was velvet smooth.
“I, uh,” Berenger cleared his throat, “I was here looking for someone. Friend of my brother’s, know of him more than I know him. Actually I don’t really know anything about him other than that he’s a flake. Don’t suppose you have any regulars who’ve flaked out recently?
“Hm.” Those light, well-sculpted brows rose again in a few moments of thought. “No, don’t think so.” Eyelids no longer dusted with eyeshadow lowered. “My regulars don’t usually leave me.”
Berenger let out a small laugh, breaking his gaze away. “No,” he said casually, because he expected it was true, “I suppose they don’t.”
There was a halt in the rhythm of the footfalls beside him, and Berenger turned back to see the dancer paused at the mouth of another side-street.
“I’m headed this way,” he said, as he dipped his head toward the branching street. Then his voice lowered. “Unless,” he added, slowly, like drizzled syrup, “that was an offer to walk me home?”
Berenger blinked, surprised at the flirtation. Perhaps he shouldn’t have been, coming from a man like that. “No,” he replied after a second too long. Then, to cushion the abruptness of that reply, he added awkwardly, “Not tonight?”
“Hm.” The dancer’s gaze dropped, but his face didn’t show disappointment, exactly. “Shame. It’s cold tonight.”
And with that, and a final small smile, he turned down the other street.
Berenger watched his retreating form, taking a moment to notice the way he walked—completely straight, without a single swish. Then the dancer veered into another lane and was out of sight. Pulling his gaze from the now empty street-mouth, Berenger took a deep breath, inhaling the chilly night air tinged with the slightly sour smell of unclean streets and the lingering remnants of cigar smoke in his clothing. Shifting his coat around him again, he set off once more on the long walk home. It was indeed rather cold tonight.
- - -
Two nights later, Berenger got his first solid breakthrough.
The dive bar, named Paul’s by an etched board hammered above the doorway, was generously filled on a Teraday night. Watery beer and cheap spirits flowed strong as patrons celebrated the end of the week by drinking away their paycheques. It was not ideal that different nights at different joints saw different numbers of people available for questioning, but it couldn't be helped. He didn't have the time to limit his investigation to weekends. Besides, no watering hole was ever very empty any night, in Dockland.
Berenger was squeezed into one of the rattier booths when the big man hunched across from him said, “Huh. That ain’t Chelaut Auclair you’re looking for, is it? He plays cards here sometimes.” A tip of his head indicated several of tables on the other side of the bar set up with grimy decks of cards. “Hasn’t been by the last few months though.”
Berenger blinked, carefully emulating interest with enough uncertainty so as to not cut off any alternate avenues of speculation. “Could be,” he replied.
The man rubbed a rough hand tipped with unevenly cut nails over the side of his face. “Lanky guy,” he said. “Shaved head. Always fiddling with that flashy silver lighter of his.”
Berenger’s heartbeat jumped in his chest, and his throat, sharp like a punch. The debris in the warehouse where the third body had been found had contained, amongst several other items that had been carefully bagged and catalogued, an antique silver cigarette lighter. With the amount of loose rubbish dropped or discarded around these abandoned places, and with fingerprinting the incinerated remains not being a possibility, there had been no reason to think any item found nearby to a murder had belonged to the victim. But it had been possible. It had always been possible.
Berenger swallowed, once, twice, before he spoke again. “Yeah,” he said, voice precisely level. “It could be.”
Since our names for the days of the week reference gods and goddesses that don't exist in this world, I went with fictionalised Veretian names for days. Not really a major thing in the story, but here they are:
Solday (from Latin "sol" = sun) - Sunday
Luneday (from French "lune" = moon) - Monday
Maréeday (from French "marée" = tide) - Tuesday
Feueday (from French "feu" = fire) - Wednesday
Ventiday (from French "vent" = wind) - Thursday
Teraday (from Latin "terra" = earth) - Friday
Astreday (from French "astre" = star) - Saturday
Now, onto the pole stuff! Ancel uses a spinning pole because I use a spinning pole (i.e. when the entire pole spins around, as opposed to static pole which is a different style). Yeh :D
His routine starts with a Hollywood Spin (see tutorial thumbnail for image). He's described doing a Back Hook Spin, then lifting straight into an Invert, going into an Inverted Crucifix. A note on that, it's common to tuck your knees to your chest when tilting into an invert, then extend your legs back out once you're upside-down. But since Ancel's wearing those thigh-high boots, he probably can't bend his knees as easily and would do it the entire motion with his legs straight. Which takes more core strength ;)
The mention of a move where he's suspended only by a bent knee can any variation of a leg hang. For example, an Outside Leg Hang. Or alternatively, demonstrated by me ;) Featuring the aforementioned boots of mine that are the same as Ancel's.
I have also compiled a visual glossary masterpost of all pole moves in the story on tumblr here (mild spoilers for later chapters), along with some bonus pics.
Sixteen nights of his first leg of investigation, sixteen little blue pins on a map covered, and Berenger had a name.
A list of names, even. Three he'd marked as the more likely maybes. A straggle of others that had been mentioned and noted down for thoroughness. And one match.
His chief had been pleased when he'd telephoned in his progress. Pleased in the slightly preoccupied manner of a man so busy his mind was always on something else, no matter the priority of the current topic. It was the manner of all police chiefs of cities like Arles, where the force was always spread thin over the turbid underbelly, and spread thinner yet by the hard times of the recent years. And it was Dockland, after all. No killer stalked Palace Gardens. There were no rich districts in peril, once the pattern had been established. No frightened influential people making headlining statements in the press about the failure of the police. No publicly grieving loved ones rallying the city into a frenzy, demanding justice yesterday. Just Dockland. Whose stories of horror drew almost more morbid titillation than sympathy.
The Tallow Man may be top bill at the moment, but this was what top bill looked like. Berenger, and his map, and his list, and whatever contacts he could drum up.
Which, actually, wasn’t too few.
The man currently sitting across from him had the plain brown hair and unremarkable face that best suited men of his sector of work. Although, ‘sitting’ was somewhat of an overstatement, as he was leaning back far enough in his chair that Berenger may have been afraid he was going to slip right off, if he hadn’t seen him successfully manage that angle on many occasions previous. The restaurant they were lunching in was just this side of fancy, upscale but not so far up that people would raise both eyebrows at a patron failing to sit ramrod straight. In the years they’d been meeting, Lazar had been steadily upping the price bracket of the places he set as locations—Berenger always being the one to pick up the bill, of course.
Berenger was never sure exactly what it was Lazar did. He ran jobs of some certain kind, sometimes with a young but large Akielon associate that Berenger had seen a handful of times in passing. And he talked to the police when they paid. Part of the lack of further knowledge was the result of deliberately not asking too many questions, the other part—he suspected—was because Lazar didn’t really have something specific that he did. From what Berenger knew, he was a sort of man for hire, sort of a go-to for information. A cross between a mercenary and a private investigator who specialised in working for the bad guys. Whatever it was, his rakishly fast-and-loose exterior and boisterous appetite for trouble was, in fact, scrupulously moderated by a wariness for finding too much trouble. It made him a rather ideal police informant, a fact he was probably aware of. And which he had probably built his career on.
Five neatly-cut squares of steak into his lunch, Lazar set down his knife. Reaching out, he tapped his finger against one of the names on the list that Berenger had set down in front of him after the second square. “This one. Emil Andry.”
Berenger’s forkful of sausage stilled halfway to his mouth. If there were anyone who knew any name in the overlookable parts of town it would be Lazar, but it had still been a long shot coming to him. Albeit, only as much as every other step of this investigation currently was. He swallowed before he spoke. “You know him?”
Lazar tapped at the list again. Second on Berenger’s short collection of maybes, Emil Andry’s name had come up at a bar-and-restaurant the Solday before last. He’d been matched—loosely—because he was an electric-worker, and the remnants of melted rubber around the second victim's feet had suggested at thick insulated boots.
“No,” he replied. “I meant he doesn't fit.”
“Because I don’t know him.”
Berenger set down his fork.
“If you’re looking for a pattern,” Lazar was already continuing, “then I’d say these two”—he traced his finger around the rest of Berenger’s best guesses—”and this one.” The circle finished off with a flick to the side toward one of the other mentioned possibilities.
“A pattern,” Berenger repeated. His voice was flat, controlled in the way he kept with long practice in this line of work, as he looked down at the names Lazar had indicated.
Chelaut Auclair with his lighter. Also a bouncer, Radel Carre, who’d first failed to show up for work the same night the fifth victim’s death had been dated. And one Jeurre Martin whose name had been dropped briefly in regards to recently skipping out on a bar tab. Nothing Berenger recognised or could connect, but that was why he had contacts. A pattern to a serial killer, if one could be recognised, would change a lot.
Across the table, Lazar picked up his knife again and turned it back on his steak. He asked as he made his next cut, “Do you want to tell me what these names are actually about?”
The shake of Berenger’s head was a familiar habitual response to questions of this nature. Informant or not, it was simple caution to not give out too much on the inner workings of any police investigation. More so, perhaps, to an informant. For all Berenger knew there might be times information was being passed both ways as it suited. “If something comes of it, you’ll see it in the papers. What do they mean to you?”
There was an audible exhale, matched with a raise of the mercenary’s eyebrow. “If something comes of it,” Lazar quipped, “I’m sure I will.” He popped the next piece of steak in his mouth, chewing whilst his eyes darted a quick side-to-side of their surrounds. Cockiness and smirks aside, he was a man who was good at what he did. When he spoke again, his voice was low.
“These three, they’re in with Regent.”
Berenger’s breath skipped to a dead stop in his throat.
He’d been expecting, hoping at best to find a consistent way the Tallow Man was choosing his victims. Patients at the same medical clinic. Patrons of the same brothel. But this, this was something else.
It was an old Veretian saying. Whilst the law may be king, the strong will be its regent. There might have been gangs for as long as there had been cities, but there’d once been a time when the crime organisations of Vere were scattered and disparate, middling operations in each their own patch of the underground with space in between. Not like the tight-knit family which all common knowledge knew owned Akielos from border to border. Then times had gotten harder, honest work had gotten sparser, and something had grown to fill those spaces in. Something proud enough to take its name from so-called wisdom.
Berenger knew Regent. Everyone knew Regent, but Berenger knew them in cases that fizzled to nothing because witnesses suddenly refused to speak or disappeared trying to, in investigations that led nowhere so cleanly it could only mean someone had planned it exactly so. He knew them in drug lines and prostitution rackets and money laundering fronts but—but. He hadn’t thought to find them here.
Whilst the law may be king, the strong will be its regent. He’d been raised on the heroic stories of his father, police chief of Varenne’s capital city, who’d managed to get a bank-full of hostages to safety even as he’d been shot facing down the would-be robbers. Berenger had joined the force straight out of school, had moved to Arles after he finished his training because they’d needed more people there. Nine years later, they still needed more people there. He’d never seen the department before the budget cuts had started.
“You okay there? Did I scare you?”
Across the table, Lazar took another bite of steak. His words were half mockery, half genuine enquiry. Berenger blinked, and snapped himself out of his surprise.
“Please,” he said smoothly after a moment, “go on.”
There was a chuckle at that, a warm rough sound. “Sorry,” Lazar replied, eyebrows lifting high on his forehead, “but I can’t give you a lot on Regent. There’s a reason people who know too much in there don’t tend to stick around very long. And if you want me to find out more, well. I’m going to need a lot more from you for that. Protection, guarantees, a damn good deal.”
Berenger pursed his lips, considering. Coming to a decision, he leant in slightly and dropped his voice to match Lazar’s, admitting, “I’m not investigating Regent. I think these three men are dead.”
Lazar’s eyes widened. Berenger watched as his expression went lax with surprise, as cogs doubtless began to turn in his head. Maybe he’d make the connection about which deaths exactly these were, he wasn’t a stupid man. But Berenger wouldn’t help him to the conclusion.
Before he could reply, Berenger added, “Unless you can contradict that?”
Lazar’s parted lips fell shut again, brows creasing in thought as his wonderings fell to the questions at hand. “No,” he said finally. “I don’t believe I can. Of course, I don’t exactly keep close track of everyone I know.”
Berenger nodded. Lazar might know every important name around, but he wasn’t friends with them all—at least, Berenger hoped not. He’d be a much more dangerous man if that were the case.
With one hand, Berenger pushed his mostly untouched plate to the side, and reached inside his jacket to pull out his notebook and pencil. “Please,” he said again, “tell me what can. Did anything happen recently, anything in particular go down?” After another brief pause he prompted cautiously, “Something around Dockland, maybe?”
To his credit, Lazar didn’t ask. With the hand not holding his fork, he reached up and scratched at his bristly beard, gaze drifting down to the table-top. He replied, musingly, “A lot goes down in Dockland.” Then his gaze snapped back up. “But,” he began slowly, “if you’re after something that could leave three people dead, I can tell you there’s one place things don’t go down.”
Berenger flipped his notebook open onto a new blank section. “Meaning?”
There was the hint of a grin curving Lazar’s lips again, some of the revelatory tension of the earlier atmosphere bleeding away as the man settled back into his element like a bored gossiping housewife of the criminal persuasion. “There’s a man,” he said. “Moved in not too long ago. Maybe you know him?” He leant in conspiratorially. “Damen Vasilias.”
Poised to start taking notes, Berenger abruptly looked back up from the paper. “Damianos Vasilias is in Vere?”
Lazar had been joking. Of course Berenger knew Vasilias, the unshakeable family bound by absolute loyalty that Regent, despite its rapid rise to power, was not.
“Mmmhm.” Satisfied by the dramaticism of his pronouncement, Lazar returned once more to his steak. It was probably good steak. “Decided that he could leave the business at home to his daddy and his bro and took a little trip. Ended up in Dockland, opened a place up early last year or so. Word is, it’s no opening for an alliance. No hand out for friendship, just a big-old boot stomped into someone else’s garden.” He licked his lips, picking up a stray droplet of sauce from the left corner of his mouth. “Regent don’t touch the joint.”
“A place in Dockland.” Gently, Berenger touched his pencil back to the pristine paper with a measured exhale. And with a suspicion he already knew the answer to his next question. “Do you have a name?”
“Yeah, classy dive. It’s called Black Light.”
Of course it was.
- - -
The map was cleaner now, most of the pins removed. The five rounded red ones for the locations of the bodies still sat front and centre. And three blue ones he left for thoroughness, the places where his identified victim had been named, although there was nothing in particular to say that the establishments themselves were relevant. One blue pin had been replaced, appropriately, with a black one. The one that marked Black Light. Its head was square.
In one corner of the map lay the cigar Berenger had pocketed from the club, unsmoked and uncut at the end. His notebook lay face up on one corner over about four pin-less streets on the west side. It was open to the most recent page, pencil in the crease of the spine, abandoned at the current time in favour of the chopping board in the kitchen full of cabbage that was on the way to being dinner. He’d already read and re-read them enough times in the hours since he’d left Lazar with a paid bill and a pair of neatly folded twenty-lei notes.
Lazar had listed out the details he knew over the rest of their meal. Chelaut Auclair was a drug-runner and not a small one, somewhere substantial on the food chain and definitely part of Regent’s distribution network. Jeurre Martin, meanwhile, was a bit of a murkier figure. Some kind of money man, but word was he had his fingers in a lot of very dirty pies. Radel Carre was hired muscle, plain and simple, one with a specialty in handling certain situations for certain people when needs arose. All of them had been known to be found around Dockland, but also had the kind of work that might easily take them elsewhere for various stretches of time on end. All of them were in businesses where people weren’t always dependable or predictable.
It would explain the lack of officially reported disappearances twofold. Not only were these people who might not be immediately noticed missing, they made the kind of missing persons one wouldn’t send the police to find. Berenger had three out of the five victims, and not for a certainty, but a full five out of five would have been pushing the bounds of optimism. It was more than he’d thought he’d had yesterday. It was more than he’d expected there to be had in this case.
After he finished up with dinner—eaten half straight from the pan, half from a plate over the sink—he strode back into his living area and to the rectangular table in one corner that served as his bookshelf. From there he picked up the next fresh notebook from the stack of five that he’d purchased when first assigned this case. They’d cost two lei at the card shop three blocks from the police station, and buying them was the last time he’d been that close to the station since. Better to avoid it whilst working undercover, if he could, just in case there might be someone around to recognise him.
He fetched his pencil from its resting place and left the previous notebook open on the dining table as he settled into his window chair. Then, he opened the new one onto its first page.
A pattern to a serial killer could change a lot. This pattern, to the Tallow Man, changed everything.
If he was right in his identifications so far of the victims, and if he assumed the rest followed the same pattern, it meant that the sensational press articles, the lurid public panic, the entire train of the police investigation up to now was wrong. They didn’t have a madman on their hands, taking bloodlust out on easy victims. They weren’t dealing with a deranged psychopath. They were dealing with a professional.
Across the stop of the blanched white page, Berenger jotted down a name. Regent. Then another. Vasilias? There was a touch of heaviness in his stomach, nestled nice and low below his ribs, that had steadily deepened with every note he’d jotted during lunch then settled itself in to stay. He didn’t know, was the thing. Didn’t know what exactly this was going to be. He didn’t work gang violence or vice, where cases were started at the risk that pertinent people might quietly find themselves no longer available for testimony. He wasn’t familiar with these stakes.
Further down in larger letters, he wrote the three names that he had for the victims. Left to right, across the same line, and enclosed with a box. He was a detective. He may not know where, how deep this was going to go, but he was here to investigate a murder. And that was what he would continue to do.
One thing was clear, though. He'd have to tread carefully. If this was truly about Regent, then someone was taking very thorough precautions to ensure that it didn't appear to be so. He'd seen mobs kill—they all had. Bodies left in the streets as crumpled trophies of war, and people shot from motorcars with darkened windows in broad daylight. Well-witnessed statements of power. The police might not always be able to prove it, but everyone always knew who'd done it. That was the point.
And then sometimes, often, inevitably, there'd be retaliation from the other side. And more.
But this wasn't that. This wasn't a gang war, it was the very opposite. And mostly importantly, Berenger was sure, Regent themselves didn't know. Hadn't yet pieced together the pieces between its few men who'd dropped off the radar. Because if they had, everyone else would know about it.
Berenger had three names, three people whose last steps he could retrace. But if he came in asking questions too boldly, he could tip Regent off to the very thing the Tallow Man was avoiding. Would that be a bad thing, to disrupt the wishes of the killer? Perhaps. Especially if, in the absence of being able to identify the party responsible, Regent simply picked a direction for retaliation and went ahead anyway.
After a long second of stillness, pencil tip hovering above the page, Berenger finally shifted it a few lines further down. There, he wrote two more words.
There was one place he could start.
- - -
He donned a different jacket when he set out that evening, a darker brown with a stylish cut, a step up from the shabby working man’s garb he’d maintained throughout his previous enquiries. Not too expensive, just expensive enough to present as the best piece of a meagre wardrobe. And the style, if anyone informed on such things were to look closely, was actually one which had been in fashion several years previous.
There was a different man that night posted outside the club. He was as tall and broad-shouldered as the first, a little older from what Berenger could see, and also Akielon. But he had an easier smile on his face, or at least one at all, and tipped his head in greeting as Berenger made his way past the doorstep. Then the heavy wood was thudding shut between them, and Berenger was being greeted by the familiar tang of expensive cigars.
It was later in the night than he’d arrived on his last visit, after the performances had started if he recalled correctly. And apparently he did, since he entered to the bulbs around the floor flickering on to the half-light he recognised for between acts. On the far side of the floor, he spied the briefest flash of red hair as it disappeared offstage.
A flare of disappointment tugged at his chest, for a moment, like a bristle catching on fabric before he gently but firmly pulled it free. He would have liked to see the dancer perform again, to see another showing of the kind of magic that could be wrought by an artist of the physical form. And of a beautiful young man on a well-lit stage. But, he was here to work. And he’d chosen this time to make the most of his observation.
The same bartender as before was serving the drinks. There was a small line at the bar of people who’d taken advantage of the break in performances to order, and Berenger lingered unhurriedly at the back. Making idle note of the bartender’s demeanour as he waited, what he saw matched the impression he’d already gotten—of a professionally-minded server who worked competently and efficiently, and who exchanged minimal pleasantries with his customers without settling into long bouts of gossip. Probably not the best candidate for an information source on the club and its workings. Berenger took his whiskey from the man once it was ordered and poured, without seeming to receive any particular recognition from the pourer, and retired to the furthest corner table on the floor.
It wasn’t long before the lights changed for the next act. Not the blond singer of the other night, but a new man with honey-coloured hair and a guitar that he propped on his knee after seating himself atop a high stool on the stage. He also sang, with a melodious, pretty kind of voice to accompany his admirably skilled handling of his instrument. And he wore a dangerously short tunic with no leggings underneath.
Berenger let his attention slip away from the stage to the rest of the room and the suitably-distracted audience. The crowd was sizable for a Luneday night, start of the working week for people who didn’t have jobs like Berenger’s. Or Lazar’s, for that matter. There were a few patrons whom Berenger recognised from his last visit—he had a good memory for people, trained, not innate. This place apparently had its share of regulars, ones who were a step up from those found in the worst dives of the area in dress and manner and average level of drunken disorder, although not too far from the crowd which could be expected at the better-presented establishments. Berenger hadn't found out very many personal details from those he'd spoken to during his first canvas of questions, but it seemed that the patrons here were comprised of, not only workers, but also foremen and business-owners and other more prosperous citizens of Dockland. The prices at the bar weren’t dirt cheap but were still reasonable. This was a place that attracted the discerning Dockland native, but did not obligate an affluent one. It made, Berenger reflected, a very good base for someone in the business of the mob.
There were four exits from the main room. The front door, of course. The stage door that must lead to some kind of dressing room for the performers, a door behind the bar that probably connected to a storage room or cellar. And the staircase to the upper story, with its single door at the top.
Whether that last door might lead to private rooms for use of patrons desiring privacy, or to some other kind of exclusive meeting area, Berenger didn’t know. From what he’d seen of the crowd so far, made out in the snatches of conversation and body language around himself, he hadn’t noticed anyone who appeared to be using the social establishment for other than it seemed. No serious-looking meetings between disreputable individuals, no packages or wads of money being exchanged. Nothing that indicated Black Light as a flimsy front for hosting Vasilias family dealings. At least on this level.
On the stage, the guitar player finished his first song to warm applause. A spotlighted flared on to his side, illuminating the pianist whose still form waiting in the dark Berenger had vaguely noticed and noted previously. It was the same man who’d played both piano and drums the other night. Now properly lit for performance, unlike when he’d been simply filling in the background, he lifted his hands to place his fingers on the keys. Then with a few upbeat chords, and the prancing notes of a walking bassline, the two kicked off into a lively duet.
Though it wasn’t easy to see under the stage lighting, made less easy still by the fact that both of them were of relatively light complexion, Berenger was fairly sure the musicians were Akielon. The blond singer had been Veretian, as was the bartender. And the dancer. Although, with the flame-red hair and wide smattering of freckles across his cheeks and down his neck—missed on the stage, but idly-noted under the streetlight that short walk after—he had a most unique visage even for a Veretian.
Berenger blinked, focus falling away from his police-trained contemplation as he realised he was being addressed. His gaze had been on the pianist, fortunately, for the last sizeable period of time. It was never wise to assume, whilst undercover, that there wasn’t anyone around shrewd enough to notice eyes wondering too curiously over things they shouldn’t be on. He cast his attention smoothly over to the person who had approached.
Appropriate to his last thoughts, it was the dancer. Berenger hadn't seen him emerge onto the club floor. Still with blood-red lips and black-lined eyes, tonight he was dressed in a red-sequined crop top of gossamer white and open red stiletto shoes with heels no lower than his boots. His short pants—essentially only briefs—were of the same style as the previous night, except also in red. A long gold zipper bisected them down the front, extending all the way down all the way between his legs, as if just inviting someone to unzip him.
Berenger blinked again. Beside him, the dancer’s perfectly painted lips lifted to one side in a subtle smirk, as if accustomed to his intended interlocutors being struck dumb by the sight of him.
Into Berenger’s lack of immediate reply he continued, “Did you find your friend? Brother’s friend?”
Berenger’s brows lifted a touch. “You remembered.”
The dancer shrugged one shoulder, a movement as fluid as one of his routine moves. “Of course,” he replied. His smirk deepened. “I remember all my audience members.”
“Really.” The same brows lifted even more. “All of them?”
“Well.” The dancer walked a small half circle, bringing himself from Berenger’s side to his front, and stepping a little closer in order to fit in the gap between Berenger’s crossed legs and the edge of the table he was sitting at. “At least the ones who look at me like you did.”
Berenger’s lips parted, mouth threatening to fall open in surprise. There was a moment as a split-second of decision flashed through his head, the longest an undercover officer had in situations like this. He could scoff. He could send the dancer away, discourage attention from himself. Or, he could not.
The young man was astute, no vapid painted pretty boy. This close and reflected at just the right angle, his eyes shone a deep green, clear with shrewd perception as he met Berenger’s gaze. A sharp mind to go with the sharp poise of his beauty. If Berenger wanted to get to know this place and its people, well. Continuing this conversation may not be a bad idea.
It didn’t take acting, really, to let the surprise show on his face. With it also came a tinge of embarrassment at being caught out. Into the abashed silence that followed, the dancer let out a high titter of a laugh. The smirk warmed into a smile.
“Well,” he said, voice dropping a little lower, “do you have a name?”
Berenger shut his mouth, nodding as if that had been legitimately a yes-no question. After a beat more he managed, “Lou Berenger.” His cover identity. He wasn’t the kind of headlining hero policeman whose name would be known, and it was always better to keep things easy whenever they could be. “Just—call me Berenger.”
“Mm.” The dancer placed a hand down on the table-top behind him, leaning his weight backward. The motion showed off the graceful arch of his spine. “I’m Ancel.”
“Pleased to meet you, Ancel.”
Ancel laughed again, another pleasant bloom of sound. “You’re sweet,” he said. And then he licked his lips, dropping his lashes ever so slightly. “You know what would also be sweet?” he continued. “If you bought me a drink for after my set.”
Berenger gave a small quirk of a smile. “What would you like?”
Ancel named a drink Berenger had never heard of, presumably some fancy house cocktail. Berenger pushed out of his seat, the motion bringing him for a second into the V of Ancel’s spread legs as he stood. Then he was stepping back again to turn and walk the length of the room to the bar.
Placing his order, he wasn’t surprised when the bartender charged him a price that must have placed it as one of the most expensive drinks on the menu. If not the most expensive. He was also fairly certain, if he knew anything of places like this, that whatever drink the performers were instructed to order would be heavily watered down. Nevertheless, he watched the colourful green drink be poured before picking up the long-stemmed glass.
When he turned back with the cocktail, he half expected Ancel to be gone, and for this to have been some petty scheme to make him order an overpriced drink. But no, that would hardly be a repeatable source of money making. Ancel was still draped lazily over the edge of the table like a precisely-balanced oil painting, gaze steadily following Berenger’s progress across the room.
“Thank you, sweetheart,” he whispered as Berenger handled the tall glass over. It wasn’t easy to whisper in an environment like this, with the musical performance ongoing and the other tables hardly silent, though neither were they particularly raucous. Still, he managed to inject enough breathiness into his tone to give that impression. Ignoring the dainty green straw stuck into the vague mixture of tinted liquid, he took a long drink straight from the side of the glass.
Berenger’s lips threatened to curve again as he sat once more in his seat. He made to reach for his own drink, which was still half-full, but before he got there Ancel moved. Abruptly setting his cocktail on the table-top, he slid forward in one fluid motion and sat himself down across Berenger’s lap.
Berenger’s breath caught, just the tiniest bit. His arm also faltered in its reach toward his glass, before—before with full readiness of adaptation to unforeseen circumstances, it changed trajectory and settled itself instead around Ancel’s waist. The dancer made a quiet, pleased sound in his throat. Relaxing in a comfortable loosening of limbs, he tucked himself more tightly against Berenger’s side. When he spoke a few beats later, Berenger could feel the puff of breath against the side of his neck.
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“Hm?” Backtracking his thoughts, Berenger caught up to the meaning of the enquiry. “Ah. Yes, found my friend.” With a clear of his throat he continued on with the extension of his story. “Gipped on me. Of course, what else was I expecting? Job he promised never panned out, should have known.”
“Oh.” Ancel lifted his head far enough to bring their gazes together again. Even made out in the dim light, the look in his bright green eyes was more genuinely sympathetic than Berenger was expecting. “I’m sorry.”
Berenger shrugged the shoulder Ancel wasn’t leaning on. “It’s alright,” he replied. Then, changing the subject in case the dancer had a mind to ask any further questions about his so-called friend, he went on, “And, sorry to disappoint but I wasn’t one of your audience members tonight.”
“Oh?” Ancel’s brows drew together in the smallest of creases.
“Missed it, I’m afraid. Came in too late.”
“Well.” A sigh, as the crease between brows eased. “I suppose you’ll just have to come back more then.” His lips twitched back into his half-smirk.
“Do you perform every night?” Berenger asked. And, because it was true, he dropped his voice to add, “You are stunning when you dance. Better than any ballet the rich folk watch, I’m sure.”
Ancel’s lips parted and his head cocked to one side. For a moment he seemed taken aback by the compliment, that comparison, but then his expression was smoothing once more into flirtatious cockiness. “Mm,” he replied, “I know.” He shifted in Berenger’s lap. “And no, I don’t dance every weeknight. We only have a couple small performances during the week, rotating between us. The bigger shows are on the weekends. That’s when I do my full set.”
“Really. There’s more?”
A laugh, breathier than the ones earlier. “Come back and see.”
“Maybe I’ll have to.”
Berenger shifted his arm too, pulling the dancer closer. Their gazes still locked together, he took a slow breath, in and out. With another breath he let himself feel. Feel the warm weight on his lap, the trim waist under his hand, the lithe but solid body against his—solid with the strength it took to perform those stunts. He felt his own body reacting in response too, and let it happen. Call it verisimilitude, or call it—just maybe—a little pleasant break from the austere focus of his working night. The building prickle of arousal began to pool between his legs.
“And how often,” he said, as a touch of breathiness bled into his own voice, “do you come out and meet your admirers?”
“Oh, you know.” Ancel leant closer, only a fraction, but they were at the distance where a fraction was most keenly felt. “When I think there’s someone worth meeting.”
It wasn’t true, obviously. The performers must have it as part of their work to come out sometimes to mingle with the crowd, sell some drinks, earn some tips. Not every night, as Ancel hadn’t stayed last time after his show, maybe just irregularly enough to come off as a particular treat. But for now, for here, Berenger was willing to entertain the illusion.
Slowly, he drew his free hand around to rest on the firm contour of Ancel’s calf, then started to slide it up his bare leg. At the touch of warm, soft skin, his gaze involuntarily dropped to Ancel’s mouth, the plump curve of his lower lip. He wondered how badly that red might stain.
He got halfway up Ancel’s thigh before the dancer moved, and caught his hand mid-motion.
“Now then,” he said, mischief light in his tone. “You’re going to have to buy me a few more drinks before you get there.”
At the angle they were sitting, the closed door on the upper landing of the staircase was visible over Ancel’s shoulder. It occurred to Berenger, idly, that maybe there was a way to it. He didn’t try to pull his hand free. He leant closer still.
“How much to skip the drinks, then?”
There was a beat. Then another, stretching out between their still forms, and then—
“You know what?”
Abruptly, Ancel was pulling back, voice was no longer that husky half-whisper but hard. Firm with a very pronounced casualness.
“That’s one of the nicer tones of voice in which I’ve been called a whore.”
Berenger blinked at the sudden loss of warmth from his lap as the dancer stood in a single practical sweep of his legs. He opened his mouth, and in the second it took him to find words Ancel had picked up his drink and downed the rest of it in a single long gulp.
“Thanks for the drink,” Ancel said, politely, scrupulously mildly. And then he was turning, walking away. Gone.
Berenger took a long few seconds to compose himself, to calm his thoughts back into order, to process what had happened. He still felt the phantom weight of the dancer’s body perched across his thighs, the skin of his waist bare under his fingers. He exhaled sharply, and leant his head back to stretch out his neck.
By the time he glanced over to the bar, it was to see Ancel perched on one of the tall stools, handing over his empty glass. Neither him nor the bartender looked back over at Berenger.
On the stage, the latest song finished to another round of applause. There was an amplified electronic thump as the guitar player stood, set his instrument down on the seat, and tugged the microphone off its stand. The applause grew more enthusiastic as he stepped forward and hopped nimbly off the low stage, trailing the long cable behind him as he took his next song down onto the floor. Catching more than a few sets of eyes dropping to the man’s bare legs on their way past, Berenger suspected that short tunic was going to be appreciated.
Berenger cast a look to the bar again. Ancel was still there, but turned so that he was facing a table of two men on the other far corner who were both eyeing him instead of the musical act. Assessing his next target no doubt. Berenger exhaled a second time, and with a tug of effort pulled his attention back to the wider room.
Alright. That one he’d misjudged.
Berenger slept late the next day.
It was not something he was in the habit of doing, but he’d stayed at Black Light until the bartender has ushered him and the other remaining straggling customers out in the early hours of the morning. It had been a distantly polite process, adroitly conducted, with not a single drunk necessitating being thrown through the doorway. Indeed, neither at closing nor at any other time during his two evenings there had Berenger seen anyone who’d stood or acted as security inside the club. Perhaps the doorman would be called inside if any disturbance arose, or perhaps he had partners waiting hidden in the backroom. Or, perhaps Damianos kept plainly-dressed employees mingled amongst the crowd for unexpected situations.
Ancel had spent the rest of the musician’s performance perched on the knee of one of the two men in the other corner. Berenger couldn’t hear what they were saying at that distance, but he saw the dancer’s head tip back several times in laughter. If his gaze fell more frequently on Ancel in that time, it was in part because, at that distance, he was noticing how well practiced and performed that pleasing little toss of his head was.
After a couple more songs, the musician had returned his microphone to the stand without climbing back onto the stage, and turned promptly to slip himself back amongst his captive audience. The full house lights replaced the stage lights, and the pianist settled into a simple background tune. It hadn’t taken long before the conversation volume began to rise all around.
Both Ancel and the musician spent a bit over an hour mingling in the crowd. From what Berenger could see, the other performer was more on the demure side, accepting pulled out chairs instead of open laps, his body language tending toward shyness as he chatted with his admirers. Whether that was feigned or genuine, however, Berenger couldn’t say. The musician moved many times between tables but didn’t make it too far toward the back of the room, crossing paths with Ancel on a handful of occasions. The two seemed on friendly terms and often had a couple of words for each other on the way past.
Finally, as the night had grown later, the occupants of the club starting to thin but the traffic before the bar still reasonable, the pianist had played his last note and stood up from his stool to a smattering of applause—not quite as loud as the stage acts had gained, but warm enough it spoke of his own popularity with the crowd. Not long after the pianist retired, Ancel extracted himself from the conversation, and the arms, of a moderately well-dressed older gentleman. He disappeared through the door behind the bar that must have also connected backstage, the other performer following shortly.
The club stayed open an hour or so after that. Berenger had already moved to the bar by then and started drinking more heavily, wary of his long solitary stay seeming too out of place. He struck up a few brief conversations with the bartender here and there, but didn’t manage much besides exchanges on the weather, the pace of the work behind the bar, and the fact that the weekend shows really were something to see. By the time he was getting invited out the door, he hadn’t seen anyone approach the staircase either descending or ascending. The door on the upper landing had stayed firmly shut, with no sign of the Akielon Berenger had seen behind it the other night. Apparently it wasn’t that sort of place after all. No patrons slipping off into the privacy of a backroom, even with the few couples here and there being rather indiscreet with their affections.
Despite his heavier drinking, his head was clear when he woke. He’d developed a fair tolerance to whiskey over the years, and knew how best to pace himself when he did have to up his intake. The sun was already high by the time he exercised and stepped out of his apartment building to pick up his usual newspaper. Today, he opted to head back upstairs with it instead of continuing over to the diner.
There was nothing useful, of course. Not when he and no one else was aware of the drastic change in direction the investigation had taken these last couple of days. But he’d kept up the habit for long enough he didn’t feel like breaking it.
Just before lunch he picked up the telephone, gave the operator the redirection instructions to connect internationally, and got his call through to a liaison contact in the Akielon police. Chief Heiron wasn’t the most forthcoming—Berenger could imagine why, given the complex nature that dealings with the Vasilias family probably took—but he laid out a general history in his accented but eloquent Veretian. Receiver pressed between his ear and his shoulder, Berenger took it all down into his second notebook.
The patriarch was Theomedes Vasilias who, as his standing official accomplishment, owned one of the major newsprint companies of Akielos. By all public opinion, the chief admitted with some grudgingness, it was undeniably a high-quality publication. It employed skilled journalists, ran well-written and compelling stories, and looked exactly where Vasilias wanted it to. As much as it could, it formed the legitimate side of the family business.
His right-hand man and woman were his older son Kastor and Kastor’s mother Hypermenestra, who comprised the small business side of the family. Between them they owned a number of common enterprises, lines of restaurants, laundries, auto-mechanics. Enterprises which had been the subject of very numerous attempted investigations over the years into where exactly the money going through them was coming from.
They were, the chief also grudgingly admitted, a fairly clean operation. Akielos had been hit badly as Vere by the hard times, but they were surviving. Sometimes, criminals were smart enough to realise that order was better than chaos. Even for them.
Damianos, he supplied finally, was the younger of Theomedes’s two sons by his wife Egeria—who, by all accounts, was happy with living a comfortable lifestyle on the family money and had no quarrel with Hypermenestra. He was more involved in the business than his mother, but not quite as essential to it as his brother. Chief Heiron confirmed that, last they’d heard, Damianos had left the country and set himself up in Arles as something of an outpost for the family. But beyond that, they didn’t have much on him.
Scribbling the last few points down in his own practiced shorthand, Berenger said his thanks for the information. In return, he provided the tidbit he’d heard from Lazar, although with the qualifier that he’d yet to confirm it for himself. Nor to gather any further details on the nature of the establishment supposedly owned by Damianos. Chief Heiron thanked him back, promised to post him their most recent photograph of the man, and requested he get into contact with more information as he had it. Berenger agreed, and the two clicked out of the call after their exchange of goodbyes.
After lunch, Berenger put in another call to his own chief, only to be answered instead by the station’s young desk sergeant. He was informed that Chief Audin was in a meeting with the mayor, and let Aimeric know to pass on the message that he’d called. And that he had major progress to report, if the chief could call him back as soon as he was available.
He settled in his chair by the window for the afternoon with his notebook and half a jug of brewed coffee. Only half, because he never drank fast enough to finish a full jug before it got cold, and he never liked drinking cold coffee. Setting himself to the task of writing up his full set of notes on the previous night’s work, he got up once in the middle to brew another half jug. When he returned to his seat after that, he slid open the window to let in some of the warmth of the day. The faint waft of petrol from the streets came with it, mixed with the perfume of the flowers in the trees beside them, baked cakes and fresh meatballs from the open stalls. He’d been in Arles nine years. He liked the smell of the city.
He’d wanted to revisit the club hearing what Lazar had to say about it, wanted to see it again knowing what it really was—allegedly, anyway. But there'd been no revelation last night. No epiphany forthcoming to him about Black Light and its people and how they fit in exactly in this picture. And so it was time for him now to await his chief's response to his progress, to determine his next step and direction, maybe see whether he could expect backup.
As the shadows across his apartment began to stretch to evening, Berenger finished off both his newest entry and his latest read-through of everything he had. Including his previous notebook, on the chance that his recent far-reaching conclusions prove to have been too far-reaching. That much did remain possible. Although in his gut, Berenger didn’t think so. Coincidences did happen, but sometimes the assumption of what was too much to be a coincidence was all a detective had to go off. And his instincts honed on the streets of Arles were telling him that pieces were coming together.
The telephone rang as he was peeling carrots for dinner, but when he answered it was Aimeric again. Chief Audin had been informed Berenger had called, but he’d been tied up all day and had now left the station. However, he’d requested that, if Berenger had significant developments, he should write out a report and have it sent over. Berenger thanked Aimeric, and told him he would do so tomorrow morning.
After dinner he headed into his bedroom and took a seat on his narrow bed, back against one of the room’s three-and-a-half walls. He flicked through channels on the radio on his side-table until he settled on a spirited classical music concert, leaving that on for a whilst before he decided to turn in. He didn’t go out.
It wasn’t the first night he’d taken off since beginning this case. They’d been few enough though to be a rare commodity these last weeks. Policework wasn’t a job with weekends off, and Berenger was used to putting in the days on end, especially with the kind of work he did. But now, he’d done his groundwork. He could also use one night’s early rest, not spent with a glass of whiskey in his hand, the sticky floor of an evening in Dockland beneath his shoes, the constant necessity of remaining alert to everything around him.
If his thoughts wandered to red hair and a bold smirk as he drifted off to sleep, to the cadence of a husky voice with enough fire to refuse to be insulted, they were lost before the morning to the blackness of the dark.
- - -
Berenger finished writing his official report by lunchtime the next day. He tucked it away into a slightly-bulging nondescript packet, dug through his dresser for an envelope and a roll of stamps, and set out for the post office around the corner. Better for him to let it travel a few hours in the postal truck in order to keep up his cover of avoiding the police station in person. It was early enough he should be able to catch the second collection of the day, and have the report on his chief’s desk a few districts over that same afternoon. Whether his chief actually had enough time to read it that afternoon would be another question.
He decided to treat himself afterwards to the restaurant next door, and over a meat pie read the interview of a social campaigner who insisted that the murders in Dockland were the latest manifestation of the vice and depravity of the people within. Even for a wild news article, it was one of the more inane ones. The pie, however, was good.
When he returned to his apartment building, he was pleased to check his post box and find that the photograph of Damianos Vasilias had arrived. Chief Heiron must have sent it express. Opening up the large brown envelope back inside his living room, he laid it out on his table beside the map. Then stepped back.
It wasn’t a mugshot. It wasn’t even a candid snapped on surveillance. It was a picture that must have been straight from the society pages, a snapshot of a gala in a richly-decorated hall full of smiling women and sharply-dressed men. Damianos was labelled as the tall, olive-skinned man in the centre, a glass of wine in his hand and a pretty blond woman on his arm. Her name wasn’t given, but the one of an older man standing behind Damianos’s left shoulder was. The resemblance between them was clear enough Berenger that would have been able to place him as Theomedes Vasilias even without the annotation.
Damianos was a large man, with broad shoulders that were well shown off by the fashionable cut of his tuxedo. He had dark eyes, dark hair that fell in curls around his face, and a handsome smile. Berenger wasn’t able to say for sure given one brief glimpse, but he could—could have been the man at the top of the stairs that first night.
Berenger hadn’t planned to go out that night. Not when he sat down to await his chief’s call, and to draw up a little map of the areas he’d been able to place in the club. But as the afternoon deepened and no call came, he found the toes of one foot tapping idly against the floor. His right fore-finger rubbing absent-mindedly around and around the rim of his coffee cup. His gaze drifting from Damianos’s photographed face that lay obliquely-angled across the room, to his sketched floorplan and all the blank parts he’d yet to fill in.
Black Light niggled at him. Like a scratchy seam on the inside of a shirt. There may be nothing there, just a public business venture like Theomedes’s newspaper, but the place was an unlikelihood in itself. A mixing pot of elements, some combination of sordid and classy. The accomplished showcases with their common audience. The performers who knew how to best show off their bodies but—as Berenger had both seen around the floor and experienced first-hand—firmly halted any too-far wandering hands or other indiscretions. Even the number of Akielons amongst both the staff and customers, whilst the all-male clientele and suite of beautiful men on the books for entertainment harkened back to the days of old Vere. With a little wryness, it occurred to Berenger to wonder if Damianos’s second venture might be a sister establishment catering to and staffed by women.
Finally, he shut his notebook with a quiet thud of paper on paper. Set his pencil down on the windowsill. Stood to put his coffee cup in the sink, and pull his jacket out from the small wardrobe in the corner.
He’d spent working nights in much worse places than a club with clean floors and a limber red-haired dancer on the stage.
He arrived early enough this time to catch the beginning of the performances, just. He nodded at the unsmiling doorman on his way in, and grabbed himself a table a little closer to the stage, right up by the bar and the side door behind it. He didn’t bother getting himself a drink before the lights began to flicker out.
But it was the white spotlights overhead, not the red bulbs that had lit up the stage pole, that flashed to life. At the sight, another now slightly familiar bristle of disappointment snagged in Berenger’s chest. A thought had been occurring to him on his way out tonight, an idle intention of apology slowly blooming in his mind. But, Ancel had said, he didn't perform every night.
It was the blond singer from the first night who stepped out under the lights. Though from the stage door and not the upstairs door which, unfortunately, remained shut. Dressed in deep blue tonight, a complicated wrap of a thing that draped glittering ribbons from his neck to his wrists and ankles, and managed to leave more skin uncovered than covered. His heels were blue too, and just as high and deadly-sharp spiked as before. Whoever costumed the performers certainly had an eye for colour and style.
Berenger settled back in his seat, keeping his usual observing eye on the crowd. It was hardly a chore though to enjoy the number with the rest of the crowd, to feel the air inside the club itself seeming to pulse with the passionate rises and falls of the singer’s rich voice. To join in the enthusiastic applause at the conclusion, long loose hair tossing around as the singer bowed then spun made his way back offstage. And still not upstairs.
Then, the stage flared red. Unbidden, Berenger’s pulse began to quicken.
Ancel emerged in the same high black boots Berenger had first seen him in, hips slinking sinuously in his slow walk across the stage. He hadn’t bothered with the shawl this time, leaving his chest bare, and the pants had been replaced by a dancer’s skirt—also black. Gold bangles hanging heavy around his wrists replaced the gloves as the only other adornment he wore. Perhaps it was the nature of his act, but he did always appear to sport even less clothing than the others.
The crowd had hushed for the singer before, now they were silent. The other performers may be popular but the patrons, it seemed, did have a favourite. Across the floor, Ancel came to a stop, not quite at the pole. He took a step sideways to stand with his legs apart, bowed his head, then stilled.
For a long second, the club froze with him. Held its breath, caught on the cusp of anticipation. Entranced.
To the side, the roll of a drum began. And suddenly Ancel was in motion, falling to his knees and throwing back his head, reaching up with one arm and arching his back. The roll rose in volume, louder, louder still, until it was interrupted by the crash of a cymbal as abruptly as the dancer’s body suddenly fell, slumping to the side, limp. Then silence once more, until a beat cut back in. Three counts, four, and Ancel arched again, body a flawlessly elegant line draped across the floor of the stage. And then the routine kicked off.
It was a different one to last time. It started on the floor for several sequences, with graceful bends of his spine, arcs of his hands, and then of his legs too as he rolled to his back. Until one roll took him to the base of pole and he finally reached up, pushing himself into a spin with his body tipped perfectly horizontal, lifted up off the ground. Four times around and he dropped, heels clacking on the stage as he landed to a stop on his feet. And then, without the preamble of any further twirls and poses like in the previous routine, he took one step forward and grasped the pole with both hands to flip himself upside-down.
There was a wave of titters from the crowd as short hem of the skirt fell away from his legs, small distance that it had to fall. It only revealed itself as a connected skirt and underpant piece, but that didn’t stop the round of whistles and calls. Only brief, because next second he opened his legs into a fully flat front split, and grabbed his ankle with one and moved the other to rest on his waist. As he stilled, held aloft only by his hip against the pole, his audience found itself caught again in the awed space between breaths.
Berenger had wondered over the last few days if his memory had warped the magnitude of Ancel’s skill, exaggerated the spectacularity from the lights or atmosphere or other tricks of showmanship. It hadn’t. The strength the dancer must have, the strength it would take to do a routine like this was plainly clear. In his arms, as he pulled himself about the pole with only a single hand. In his abdominals, as he lifted his legs up and down past his head whilst halfway up from the ground. And—as Berenger watched with an appraising eye, and a swallow—in his thighs. As he squeezed the pole between them and let his hands go, reaching first up above his head, then slowly leaning back until his body was a long straight line angled down toward the stage. The tips of his loose, fiery hair brushed against the ground as his neck arched to reveal the curve of his pale throat.
Berenger did force his gaze away, a handful of times, to do a sweep over the rest of the patrons in search of anyone taking advantage of the distraction. He saw nothing but a crowd that was distracted indeed. Even the groups and couples continuing their conversations seemed to be doing so with half an eye on the stage, sometimes turning away only to be drawn back like the regular arc of a plucked string.
Finally, after some indeterminate number of gasped exhales and skipped heartbeats, it ended. In one last slide, Ancel lowered himself again down to his knees, then fell onto his back to fan out his legs and roll free of the pole. He pushed himself up with one elbow under his shoulder, feet posed to the side like the image on a poster for sale at a certain specific type of shop. The other arm he raised, stilled, then dropped across his body. Twisting his torso into a floor-bound bow.
The applause was as loud as the final beats of the drum.
By the time the crowd calmed, the room lights were already back on. The dancer had disappeared through the door whence he’d come with a toss of his hair and a sashay of his hips. One by one, the halted conversations around the floor restarted, the club gradually filling again with the chatter of its patrons. Berenger turned himself in his seat, and shifted his focus over to the door behind the bar.
The singer hadn't come back out to greet his audience. Ancel had taken a few minutes last time, maybe to catch his breath. Probably to put on a little more clothing. As time went by and the door remained unopened, Berenger stood.
There was no line to order yet, which was a good thing. The bartender who made his way to the corner Berenger was leaning on was the same one as always. Berenger dropped his voice, slightly, as he spoke.
“Hey,” he began. “Do you know if Ancel will be back out tonight?”
The man cast him a look, brows lifting. He didn’t look overly surprised at the question, though neither did it seem like one he answered frequently. “Not tonight, I don’t think,” he replied, voice mild. He shifted sideways a step toward the spirit bottles. “Whiskey for you?”
So he did know his regulars. Berenger paused, then shook his head. “No. A martini, please.”
The bartender turned wordlessly, pouring up the order with his usual efficiency. When he set it down on the bar and slid it over, Berenger lifted one hand and rested two fingers over the base of the glass. Then, he pushed it back.
He said, “Can you send this to Ancel?”
That did draw a look of surprise. And a pair of even higher brows. For a moment the bartender simply looked at him in bemusement at the request, and Berenger cut back into before he replied.
“Please. He should still be backstage, right?”
The sides of bartender’s mouth quirked, looking equal parts mirth and puzzlement. After another moment he said, “Maybe. But look, we don’t usually—”
“Please,” Berenger repeated. Then he bit his lip, not hiding his edge of uncertainty, and reached over to pull his wallet out of his jacket pocket. He slid three one-lei notes across the bar to join the martini glass. More than enough for both the drink and a generous tip. “If he doesn’t want it, he can send it back.”
The man hesitated a few seconds more, gaze flicking side to side to take in the lack of other waiting patrons at the bar. Finally, he gave a shrug that said in the casual lift of his shoulders, ‘Your money.’ With one hand he swept up the notes and the martini, sliding them together in his fingers. With the other he turned and pulled open the door behind him to disappear through.
Berenger tapped his fingertips against the wooden top of the bar. Once, twice, drumming out an idle rhythm. There was a small spot of wetness under his forefinger, a droplet that had sluiced off the side of the glass.
Then, the door was swinging back open, the bartender returning sans martini quickly enough he surely hadn’t had the time to go backstage. Maybe he’d passed the drink to someone else behind the bar. That, or he’d pocketed Berenger’s tip and tossed it down the drain.
Berenger exhaled what wasn’t actually a sigh through his nose, pressing his lips together into not a smile. The bartender met his eyes with another one of his loose shrugs, then the next moment was already moving his attention away, looking over to address a new customer who’d ambled his way up to order. Berenger took two steps to the side and sat himself down on one of the tall stools. He contemplated ordering a whiskey.
There was a scrape of wood, almost lost to the noise of the club. The side door opened once again. Berenger looked up, and his eyes met the stare of a shrewd green gaze.
There was a beat. Berenger swallowed.
“Hello,” he greeted first. “You look—”
He broke off, struggling for a description. Ancel had donned a loose white shirt over the skirt and boots that he still wore, short sleeves revealing pale freckled arms unadorned by bangles. He appeared to have been halfway through cleaning his face, eyes no longer lined with the heavy markings of stage makeup but lips still a glossy blood-red. His hair was pulled back into a low convenient ponytail, with a few loose strands missed beside one ear. There was something disarming about the dichotomy. Like a flower paused half-open in bloom, giving merely a hint at the full extent of its beauty. Only, Berenger wasn’t sure which direction was supposed to be that full extent. The exquisitely dolled-up dancer or the unadorned man underneath.
He finished somewhat lamely, “—very nice.” He’d never been good at this.
The corner of Ancel’s lips twitched in reply, maybe on the way to amused, but not quite there. He slid one hand palm-down over the smooth wood as he stepped up toward the bar that separated them. In his other hand he held up the martini glass between long fingers tipped in nails as red as his lips.
“What’s this?” he asked.
Berenger’s fingers fidgeted again over the bar-top. He answered, “I thought you might appreciate it, after your performance.”
“Did you now.” The words were flat.
A small laugh huffed its way from Berenger’s lips, on the edge of nervous. Casting his mind back to the way he’d acted toward the dancer their last meeting, the tint of lingering embarrassment crept its way across his features.
“I just,” he began, “I wanted to apologise. For what I said. To you.”
Ancel cocked his head, one brow arching. The light on the ceiling reflected off the curve of his neck, and the light sheen of sweat that still lay on his skin as evidence of his earlier exertion. He said, noncommittally, “Oh?”
Berenger shifted in his seat. “I, well. I don’t usually go to places like this.” That much was true. “And I was just—” He curled up one shoulder into a helpless shrug. “—trying to say what I thought people in these places said, I suppose. Or something.” That was also true. “I don’t know. I shouldn’t have, it was thoughtless. I’m sorry.”
There was a few seconds’ pause. Ancel’s expression was contemplative, not breaking the eye-contact between them as he mulled over his reply. And then, eventually, he said, “Alright.”
Berenger exhaled, a little tension draining out of his straight spine. After a beat, he ventured a small smile. After another, a quirk of crimson lips returned it, slightly wry.
“You know,” Ancel said. “I like whiskey too.”
“Oh.” Berenger blinked. “If you’d like a whiskey I can—”
“Mm. The drink’s fine.” There was a clink as Ancel set the glass down, off to one side. Then reached down and braced both hands against the side of the bar, pushing to reveal the section that swung outward to let people in and out from behind it.
At the interruption, both of them turned. The bartender was standing with his arms crossed, brows furrowed in a frown as his gaze moved between the martini and the opening section of bar. His voice was low when he spoke again.
“You can drink that if you’re off work, but if you do then you shouldn’t be out here.”
The words confirmed Berenger’s suspicion that the drinks usually served to the performers were more water than actual alcohol. Ancel paused again with that thoughtful expression on his finely-crafted features. When he replied, there was a tint of mischief in his tuneful voice.
“Sure thing, Jord.”
And then he pushed again, pivoting the section all the way open, and stepped back. His bright eyes met Berenger’s as he picked up his glass, before he spun on his heel and grasped the knob to pull open the door he’d come out from.
Over his shoulder he called, “Coming?”
Berenger jumped off his stool.
The smell of Akielon cigars, which seemed to have seeped into every dent and crack of the club floor, petered off somewhat on the other side of the doorway. The short corridor behind the bar led into an open room with a few sets of tables and chairs. Two sizeable-looking men dressed in plain clothes played cards off in one corner, one Akielon and one Veretian, perhaps the extra security Berenger had speculated. The Veretian looked up and shot them an amused glance as they entered. Possibly he’d been the one who’d taken Ancel his drink earlier.
Behind the two men was another, narrower door which led presumably to the cellar and storage, and which Ancel didn't heard toward. Instead, he led Berenger through the room and into a corridor that opened out on the other side. It wound around what must have been the stage, past what must have been the stage door, before off-shooting into a number of individual rooms. There was more space back here than Berenger had expected. At the end, the corridor terminated in a staircase leading upward. Again to that next storey.
“Do you all have your own dressing rooms?” Berenger asked as they passed by the first door. It was unlabelled but ajar a crack, through which he may or may not have caught the briefest flash of blond hair. This was good. He would be able to fill more of his floorplan.
“Hm?” Ancel halted, turning to look back toward Berenger. “Oh, yes.” He gave a gesture with his free hand to the first door. “That’s Laurent’s, he’s the singer before me today. Erasmus and Kallias, the musicians, are down the end.” He began walking again, though he didn’t have far to go. “This is me.”
He pushed open the second door, revealing a room that wasn’t overly small but whose space was mostly filled by racks of clothing. There was a chair near the door, before a dresser with a mirror behind and an assortment of makeup and makeup removal supplies spread over the table in front. And a worn-looking couch beside them both. Berenger caught the door as he made his own way through, easing it shut behind himself. Ancel, meanwhile, took a long sip of his martini, then set the glass down on the dresser next to a tube of lipstick and flopped carelessly onto the couch. The tube was the same colour as his mouth.
“Jord’s martinis always remind me of Akielon salads,” he said, shifting until he was lying across the cushions with his booted legs hanging off one arm. He stretched like a cat, arching his back before relaxing with a soft sound of pleasure. “He likes to put in a lot of olive.”
The casual ease of his manner, and his tone, was arrestingly innocuous. Berenger couldn’t help but smile as he replied, “I like Akielon food."
“Would you like to finish it off?”
A shake of his head. “It’s yours.”
Ancel sat back up, then leant right over and picked up his glass for another long sip. “Thanks.” Apparently he didn’t mind the olive.
Berenger took a few steps, making his way toward one of the racks. Within the tangle of cloth and colour he could make out a purple feather boa, a silver sequined leotard, and several sets of matching crop tops and shorts in different hues. It was a lot, and all of it he could see in his mind’s eye as fitting Ancel’s slim but not skinny frame perfectly.
“Who does the costumes for you all?” he said, half wondering aloud. He reached a hand out to stroke the wayward fluff of the boa. It was soft. Decent quality, not cheap plastic.
Ancel made a small sound behind him. “You like them?” There was a smile in his voice. Then, “I do.”
Berenger twisting around to see Ancel sprawled out on the couch with an arm behind his head, his eyes clear and warm. “Really?”
“Mmhm.” A nod. “Everyone helps out with getting them together, but I do the designs.”
Berenger looked back over to the first rack. A second one next to it was equally colourful, and beside that a third one that was more sparsely filled and seemed to be reserved for Ancel’s normal change of street clothes. Which were still moderately colourful. “They’re very good,” he said sincerely.
When his gaze returned it was to catch the curve of Ancel’s mouth deepening. With a hint of a smirk he replied, “I like making people look pretty.”
“Not a difficult task.”
The words came easily. More matter-of-fact than flirtatious, because that was what occurred to him first. He’d already managed to demonstrate his lack of skill at flirtation. But there was no denying Ancel’s striking looks, in or out of his performance garb. Or halfway between, like he was then. That looked good on him too, despite the mismatch—or maybe because of it, and the fact that he seemed to have forgotten about his state of partial transformation. He appeared relaxed, in both and either of the faces he could wear. Comfortable.
He also, for a moment, appeared bemused at Berenger’s words, and the way they’d been said. And then he gave a small chuckle in his throat. It was a pleased sound, and one a significant step less melodious than the tittering laughs Berenger recalled from club floor two nights prior. He said dryly, "I expect you appreciate the length."
"I like what you do to give each of the performers their own style, and how you put together the colours."
Ancel blinked, at that. For a second he paused, lips parted, before he replied, "Thank you." And then his expression smoothed back out to its casual tint of mirth. His tone was teasing as he added, "High praise coming from a man whose wardrobe looks like it only comes in shades of brown."
Berenger frowned, looking down at himself as if he actually had to check what clothes he was wearing. "This shirt is white."
The laugh was even louder, this time. "White doesn't count." Ancel raised an arm to tug out the tie holding back his hair, and settled the back of his head more comfortably on the arm of the couch. "Seriously, that's not even the same trousers and jacket you wore the other nights. How many brown ensembles do you own?"
That was impressive. Berenger had had colleagues not notice he'd changed clothes. Either Ancel had a very good eye for fashion, or just a very good eye for people.
Berenger was still frowning as he said, "What's wrong with brown? It’s neutral. More flexible than blue, more room for variation than black. And you can fit together two different shades.”
“Oh.” Ancel’s painted lips parted, shaping out the sound. Then abruptly, he sat up. “Oh,” he repeated.
It was Berenger’s turn to be bemused. “What?”
Ancel reached over for his martini, picked it up and took another long drink. “You’re not just uncreative,” he stated. “You actually have feelings about the colour brown.”
“I’m not sure I’d call them feelings—”
The glass thudded back against the dresser, and Ancel dropped—rather dramatically—back onto the cushions. “I need to process this.” He flung an arm over his face.
He sat himself down in the chair as Ancel began to meander his way into a recount of how Laurent threatened to stab him every time he gave the other man a higher pair of heels, only to put them on anyway and never fail to walk without a single wobble. Though of course, he didn't need to get up and down a pole in them. Berenger asked if Ancel could also sing, which earnt a cackle and an answer that he only did so when a good song came on the radio. That set them onto radio channels, and music, and shows they tried to follow or sometimes caught an episode of. Words came easily that night. A lot of them.
If Berenger hasn't been sure what to expect from this invitation, he found it out in the loose sprawl of Ancel's limbs, the comfortable way he settled himself into what must have been a well-worn position on his dressing room couch. When the arch of his back made his shirt ride up his taut stomach, it was unselfconscious but not calculated. And when he noticed Berenger's gaze flicking down more than a few times to that exposed sliver of sin, his smirk was more amused at having caught him out than provocative. But the seductive edge wasn't gone from him. That lingered in the flourishes of his arms and the unconscious grace in his poses, his bright exclamations and tart turns of phrase. He was a man who liked to perform, and who was very good at it. He was just a little less lacey around the edges whilst off work.
Berenger went out to collect another round of drinks once the martini was done, and then another. Eventually Ancel remembered that he'd been in the middle of something and moved to his dresser to finish removing his makeup—shooing Berenger off in the process, not perching on his lap. After that he lounged back onto the couch to take off his tight black boots, unzipping them tooth by tooth down their entire long line. Once they were off, Berenger noticed that he didn't shave his legs, just had ginger hairs light enough to not be seen except for up close.
The knock at the door broke into Ancel doing an impression of the mayor’s last town hall speech that he hadn't actually seen but was imagining based on the newspaper headlines. And also their most recent round of whiskeys, which Ancel had told Berenger to tell Jord to put on his own tab. The person on the other side didn't wait for a response before turning the knob.
"Hey, Ancel." It was the singer, Laurent, out of makeup and in plain clothes himself. He cast a very slow, very deliberate eye over both of them, lingering on Berenger with obvious curiosity. "We're closing."
Berenger blinked, startled that he hadn't realised how late it had gotten. Beside him, Ancel stretched lazily, and sat up.
"Right. I'll see Berenger out and lock up."
Laurent nodded, not bothering to disguise another long assessing look shot at Berenger. Then he said, "Alright, good night." And disappeared from the doorway.
Both of them stood, Berenger idly brushing down the crease of his trousers. Ancel walked over to his third clothes rack and began plucking at his street clothes. Berenger flashed him a quick smile before turning and making his way out into the corridor first. He was just in time to see the door at the top of the far staircase swing shut behind the singer.
"Where's he going?" he asked, as he halted to a stop.
"Hm?" The soft pad of bare feet sounded as Ancel emerged, holding his street shoes in one hand and his jacket in the other, a pair of leggings slung over one elbow. "Oh, Laurent lives in the apartment upstairs, with Damen."
Damen. The reminder hit Berenger as a fissure of cold down his spine, of why he was here, of what this place was. Questions that he had—not exactly forgotten—but allowed to be put on hold for just for a few hours for a conversation he'd been having for the enjoyment of a compelling companion, rather than the carefully directed gathering of information. He took a breath, and swallowed. "Damen?"
"Mmm, the big boss. He comes down sometimes, don't think he was here tonight."
So Lazar had been right.
"Here," Ancel continued, crouching to slip on his leggings, then his shoes. "I'll let you out the back."
There was one more door, just before the staircase. It opened directly onto a side alley, off the main street that the club front sat on, which was as main a street as was found in these parts anyway. Ancel slipped into the deep blue sleeves of his jacket as they exited into the night air, and fastened only the middle button. He turned and faced Berenger with a smile of good night about his mouth.
There were several seconds of stillness on both sides as their eyes met. Into it, Berenger gave a slow, measured exhale. He said, "Can I see you tomorrow?"
Ancel’s lips pressed together. "I'm not performing tomorrow," he replied. "But," the crinkles around his eyes softened, "if you come a bit later, I'll be on the floor."
Berenger dipped his head. "I can do that."
Ancel's smile widened into a grin.
As they strolled their half block in the same direction, not touching but close enough side by side that their strides naturally fell into step, the offer to walk Ancel home made its way to the tip of Berenger’s tongue. It only seemed natural, here and now. But given how his last offer of something had gone, he wasn't sure how good an idea that would be, how this one would be taken.
But then he thought, why not.
"Walk you home?"
Ancel slowed to a stop, at the spot where they'd parted on the first night they’d spoken. The sly look that crossed his features was half lit by the streetlight, the other half of his face cast in shadow. Despite that, both his green eyes still managed to twinkle. He cast Berenger a look through his lashes.
After a beat, another, he replied, "Not tonight."
Berenger dipped his head. A thought struck him, standing on the edge of the empty street in the coldness of the late hour. He fidgeted for a moment, uncertain, not wanting to seem like he was arguing with a rejection. But, tentatively, he ventured, “Are you ever afraid? At night, I mean. With—with everything going on right now in Dockland.”
If Berenger was right about the pattern, then Ancel was in no danger from the Tallow Man. Thankfully. But Ancel didn’t know that.
At the question, the mirth bled from the dancer’s face, pale and flat under the feeble light of the streetlamp. Then, his lips firmed into something, not harsh, but resolute.
“I can take care of myself,” he said with a small nod. It was both an affirmation and a reassurance. Then he smiled again, expression warming to say, “Good night.”
And he was spinning on his heel, striding away. Gone.
Ancel pushes off the floor into what I call a Corkscrew Spin, which alas the Online Pole Studio doesn't seem to have but it's basically a spin in this sideways position (video example here). Then he does another Invert like from chapter 1 (very common move), into a Jade Split. The mentioned move when he pulls himself with only one hand could be any one-armed spin, but I was picturing a Reverse Grab Spin. Lifting his legs up and down past his head whilst halfway up from the ground is another description of an invert, specifically an aerial invert where you climb up first and do it off the ground (more difficult since you can't push off the ground for leverage).
Aaaand my fave, the move where he demonstrates his ;) thigh strength is a Cross Ankle Release, also called a layback
and I'm sure someone is thinking of laying something.
I have also compiled a visual glossary masterpost of all pole moves in the story on tumblr here (mild spoilers for later chapters), along with some bonus pics.
Chapter by Entity_Sylvir
Wheeew this chapter got real long.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The call from the chief came at lunchtime. Or, what ought to have been lunchtime anyway. Berenger was still on his morning coffee and newspaper, having slept late again.
"I read your report." The man's voice was tinny over the line. Even so, Berenger could hear the gravity in his tone. "That's quite a development."
Berenger shifted his weight, leaning a hip against the wall where he stood, knee bumping into the leg of his telephone table. "It’s all very big picture," he admitted. "It seems to fit, but we have a lot of gaps to fill in before we can be certain of any of it."
"Still." The reply was laden with the same heaviness that Berenger knew, that had sunk over him when Lazar had first named Regent. "It does seem to fit."
Berenger swallowed. It wasn’t like he’d been expecting his conclusions to be contradicted, yet it still took him a moment to absorb the confirmation of someone else sharing them. It had been a development indeed. He continued, "What we also have is a lot of new lines of inquiry. My cover could be useful to maintain, we can send another detective after tracing the potential missing people that have been identified. Get someone from vice on Chelaut Auclair's drug racquet—"
"I also read your recommendations to tread lightly if Regent is involved."
Berenger pressed his lips together at the interruption. "Yes, sir."
There was a pause at the other end of the line. Not accompanied by the shuffling of movement or the crinkling of a stretching cord, just silence. Then, “The last thing I want is a gang war under my jurisdiction.”
“You know how good the papers are at getting a hold of police information.”
Unseen as it was through the telephone, Berenger felt his brows twitch toward a frown. “I’ve never—”
“Not from you,” the chief agreed. “You’re our best undercover officer, you know the value of discretion and staying out of the limelight. That’s why you’re also the best man for this job.”
Berenger’s frown solidified. “I appreciate your regard,” he replied. “But we have a serial killer on our hands. Now that lines of inquiry have been established, I thought we’d warrant a bigger taskforce—”
A sigh, blowing a gentle roll of static down the line. “The more people on a taskforce, the bigger risk we have of an information leak.”
Berenger blinked once, twice, slowly. On the third blink, he didn’t reopen his eyes. He said, “I see.”
Budget cuts. Lack of departmental resources. The words that always lingered about the corners of every meeting or briefing or cordial chat down at the station. If his chief could find a reason, a justification to pull back on resources on any given case, Berenger understood. They’d all been understanding, for a long time.
“You’ve done good work identifying the victims, Detective,” Chief Audin was continuing. “I think it’s enough to move on with.”
He had to say it. “None of the missing persons have even been verified.”
“I thought the point was that they’re not easily verifiable.”
“There’s still places we can ask, things we can do.”
“And there will be. You’ve built an extensive network of contacts, I know. Use them, have an ear out for if anyone resurfaces. And in the meantime, I want you to keep your cover. Keep an eye on Vasilias.”
Deliberately, Berenger opened his eyes once more. He worked to keep the resignation from his tone as he said, “Vasilias’s involvement in this case is, at this point, entirely circumstantial.”
“Circumstances being that someone’s targeting people in Regent’s networks, in the same part of town their known rival operates?”
“Yes.” Yes. But also, why would Damianos Vasilias leave his family’s country of operation, live in Vere in apparent peaceful coexistence for going on a year, then begin to pick off Regent’s people? There were many why’s, here. “But not only do we have nothing solid connecting him to the Tallow Man, we have no reason even to believe that he has anything in particular to gain from them. An organisation like Regent has many enemies. We can’t discount all others.”
A hum down the line. “Maybe not. But if there’s something going on in the criminal underground of my city, I’ll bet you Vasilias is involved in some way or another.”
Berenger shifted again, leaning his weight more heavily against the wall. He conceded, carefully, “It’s likely.”
He also had a feeling he knew what this was, too. Here in the heart of Vere, Damianos was—if never cut off—at least separated from the favours and string-pulling and backdoor leverage of the rest of his family. But even in the heart of Vere, his name was known as one of the giants of the underworld, and if there was any time and place a giant could be taken down it was now. Value of discretion and staying out of the limelight for officers aside, the police chief who did that would be on front pages from Ver-Kindt to Isthima.
“You have an in, Detective,” Chief Audin said. “Don’t waste it.”
The pause this time was accompanied by the crackle of movement, like the chief settling back in his office chair. Once the noise quietened, he went on, “What can you tell me about this club?”
Maybe it was a trick of the line, but the man sounded subtly satisfied with the progress of the conversation. Berenger raised his free hand and scrubbed it back through his hair, still slightly damp from his earlier shower, as if he could scrub away the looming hints of frustration. He had his orders, and the man was his chief.
“I haven’t seen Damianos,” he answered. “Not that I could make a positive identification, anyway. But I’ve heard his name from the staff.”
“Excellent. And you have a way inside?”
A dressing room stacked overfull with costumes in a kaleidoscope of hues and glitter. A loose shirt riding up over a pale strip of exposed skin, as red hair spilled over the half-torn seams of the well-sat couch. “Maybe.”
The reply to that was a dry chuckle, of several possible implications. “Excellent,” his chief repeated.
Berenger exhaled out a long breath, gaze moving over to his dining table, its map, and its small stack of notebooks. He said, “I made notes on the previous casefiles at the station, but if we’re not bringing anyone else in then I want copies of them all sent over. I want to go over the crime scenes again. I want to speak to the previous officers on the case again, and everyone who did forensics.”
“Of course, of course.” A softer sound, followed by a clink, like the sipping and setting down of a drink. “Make your calls, I’ll have your files sent over today.”
“Hope to see your next report soon, Detective,” said the chief.
And then he disconnected the call.
- - -
"Please. I need it today."
Jord let out a dry chuckle. "That's what I'm here for."
Maybe announcing that hadn’t been the best idea. Now when Jord handed the glass over, Berenger was obligated to down it.
Maybe downing his drink wasn’t the worst idea either, though.
“Work?” The bartender’s tone was sympathetic.
“Trying to get it.”
Or to get something, anyway. He’d started with a call to the number that he left a message with in order to get in touch with Lazar. Then made the rounds of every other possibly useful contact he had. Then politely badgered Aimeric into helping him wrangle everyone who’d had a hand in the earlier Tallow Man investigations into contacting him across the next few days—not an easy task when at least half the department was out of the station at any given time. By the time he remembered that he’d forgotten about lunch, it was time for dinner. By the time he’d finished making dinner, Lazar had chosen that time to call him back.
“Ah.” Without a word, Jord picked up his empty glass as soon as it was set down, and refilled it with another. “Any luck?”
Berenger raised the glass again in a half-hearted toast, and this time took a much smaller sip. “Could be worse, really.”
Lazar had agreed to be hired for his nebulously nonspecific private investigation-like services to look into the three men he’d named. The fee he’d requested was high but not exorbitant, and Berenger had agreed to visit the bank the next day to take out the man’s retainer from his expense account. He’d accepted Berenger’s second reassurance that he wasn’t after dirt on Regent. There’d been a smile in his voice—or maybe an oft-present, easy-going smirk that Berenger could imagine well—as he’d ended the call. There was that, at least.
Across the bar, Jord inclined his head toward the other side of the room. He said, “He’s over in the booths.”
"Hm?" Berenger twisted on his stool, following Jord's gaze. Through the thin haze of cigar smoke, he caught the long spill of fiery hair over a bare shoulder, half turned away from them. “Oh.”
It was late. Ancel hadn’t specified how late, but by the time Berenger had made it over he’d missed all the performances. Sweeping a quick glance around the room, he saw that the mood piano was being played tonight by the other musician, Erasmus. The dark-haired Kallias, meanwhile, was lounging in a chair up front near the stage, dressed in an Akielon-style tunic of deep red that contrasted elegantly with his olive skin. And Ancel was sitting in a booth with a tall purple cocktail already on the table in front of him, and an arm tucked around his waist.
“Good luck.” That was Jord again, a touch of wryness in his tone. Berenger looked back to see a small smile about the bartender’s lips, before he turned away to head for another waiting customer. Whether he’d meant luck with the so-called search for work or with Ancel, Berenger wasn’t certain.
Ancel sat on the side facing the back of the room and the bar, but turned toward the man beside him who, at this angle, was mostly blocked from view by the opposite booth wall. As Berenger watched, he smiled at something, then reached out for his drink with an arm draped in silver chains. He moved his head to bring the tall glass to his lips, and his gaze found Berenger’s across the room. Berenger gave a small smile. Ancel paused mid-movement, blinking at him.
Unphased, Berenger lifted his own glass a fraction in a casual greeting. He put it down again without taking a drink and settled back onto his stool. Hopefully Ancel would have a chance to wander his way. It wasn’t like Berenger hadn’t known he’d be working.
Ancel’s stillness lasted a handful of seconds before, abruptly, he broke out of it. Turning quickly back to his interlocutor, he spoke a few words to the man. A moment later, the arm around his waist tightened to pull him closer. Ancel smiled. The movement reflected the light of the booth’s overhead bulb off his well-glossed lips, which were pink tonight. Berenger wondered how it was that the colour didn’t just come off all over his drinking glass.
He didn’t watch the entire time as Ancel made his round of the floor, drifting from each table after a little time to invite himself to another. Berenger kept his usual eye on the club and its workings, between exchanging a few words here and there with Jord, but there was nothing much different to note. Surveillance often went like that. As the lack of notable information continued, his gaze did find itself with a tendency to wander back over to the red-haired, pink and silver draped man.
The second time that his eyes met with a pair of piercing green ones, Berenger realised with a small tug in his sternum that Ancel had also been shooting glances his way. But when once more Ancel broke their gazes with some seeming haste to look back toward the man beside him, and then the entire cycle repeated itself another time, and another, Berenger began to recognise a pattern more than coincidence. And a bemused curiosity began to creep over him.
Finally, standing from his latest table and picking up both empty glasses from it, Ancel turned not toward another corner of the floor but to make his way to the bar. Or, specifically, to the side of the bar where Berenger was still nursing his drink. Berenger met him with another small smile.
“Good evening,” he greeted, once in earshot.
Ancel looked down, then back up through his lashes. He said, “You came.”
“Of course.” It was both an assurance and a statement of the fact, as Ancel had obviously long already seen that he’d come. Berenger added, because it was true, “I like your lipstick.”
A grin flooded across Ancel’s expression. “Thank you,” he replied. “I like your coat.”
Berenger snorted. He was wearing a thin coat today, it was also brown. “No you don’t.”
“No, I don’t,” Ancel agreed immediately, with a roll of his eyes.
Then he looked back at Berenger, gaze briefly dropping down his body with a regard that that made him feel looked at in a way he hadn’t for a long time.
“But,” Ancel continued, his tone considering and a little begrudging, “actually. It doesn’t look bad on you. Good, even.”
“Thank you,” Berenger echoed dryly. He couldn’t help but snort again. And then he shifted in his seat, and cocked his head to one side. “Have you,” he began, “have you been talking about me?”
“Hm?” Ancel took a step closer and set his empty glasses down atop the bar. Then his lips pulled in the direction of a smirk. “Oh.” His tone was slightly cheeky. “Noticed that, did you?”
“It was hard to miss,” Berenger mused. “With how you kept looking over, looking back, whispering in their ears. And then they’d also look over, and pretend they weren’t.”
“Ah, yes. I’ve been telling them that you’re my forlorn ex-lover, coming here desperate to win me back.”
Berenger blinked, brows creasing. It took him a moment to ask, “What? Why?”
“Because.” Ancel leant an elbow down on the bar beside the glasses, and shot Berenger a sideways glance. “Because everyone wants something more when they think they’ve won it from someone else.”
“Oh.” Berenger blinked again. And then his brows smoothed, and he let out a small huff of amusement. He should have—well, no, he didn’t think he could have guessed it would be something like that. And yet, it seemed fitting. “That’s smart.”
Ancel’s own perfectly shaped eyebrows twitched, threatening to lift. Just like the previous night, there was a brief moment he looked taken by surprise at Berenger’s comment, before his features were falling back into their playful flirtatiousness. Glossy pink lips parted, and paused a second before shaping his next words.
“I know,” he replied, in the same tone as he’d said, ‘thank you’.
They were interrupted by a clank of glass on wood as Jord arrived on the other side of the bar, sweeping away the empty glasses in tandem to the sweep of his gaze between the two of them. Ancel shifted his attention to ordering, and watching as Jord silently—but not without a few examining looks—poured the next round of drinks. When that was done, Ancel picked the new glasses back up in his long-fingered hands and made to turn away from the bar. Then paused.
He said, addressing Berenger, “When I try to walk away, grab me around the waist to stop me.”
Berenger frowned again, more deeply than before. “I’m not going to grab you,” he stated.
Ancel’s brows did lift this time. Then he sighed. “Alright,” he conceded, and his voice dropped further. “How about, then, you try to kiss me.”
There was a beat, a still second between them. Berenger felt his pulse kick up, his breath quickening the slightest bit in his chest. He didn’t reply. But, slowly, he raised a hand to cup very lightly against the side of Ancel’s face. The barstool was tall enough that he could learn straight in, slowly, bringing their mouths closer. He could feel Ancel’s breath against his lips.
Ancel waited until the fraction just before their mouths met to squirm away. He shrank back, eyes downcast as the warmth of his cheek disappeared from under Berenger’s fingertips. His demeanour was every inch the apologetic lover rebuffing an advance, with perhaps just a hint of reluctance as he did it.
Then his gaze flicked back up through his lashes, and his eyes were bright. He winked.
“I’ll be off soon,” he murmured, just loud enough to hear. “Meet me outside, at the back door.” And strode away without awaiting a reply.
By the time Berenger finished lowering his raised hand back down to the bar, Ancel was at his table once more. He slid into his seat beside an older man who, Berenger now saw, was looking straight at him. And who must certainly have been watching them the whole time. As the drinks were set down, the man turned away to say something to Ancel, then turned back to shoot Berenger one last glare. Berenger bit the inside of his cheek to stop himself from smiling.
He was just as bemused as he’d been earlier, learning that Ancel had taken advantage of his presence and attention to gain more attention from his tipping customers. But it did, somehow, seem fitting. For Ancel. Berenger took a long sip of his own drink, and settled in for the last stretch of waiting.
It was interesting, watching Ancel work. He moved like a dancer on the stage and off, every motion perfectly crafted—the toss of his hair, the slink of his hips, the curl of his mouth. There were times Berenger could pick out the arch of his neck and angle of his smirk as taking on an assertively flirtatious edge, and other times he pulled back with a slight hunch of his shoulders and duck of his chin into something more coy. And yet in all of it he could still recognise the same mannerisms of the young man who sprawled loose-limbed in his dressing room once the night was over, who snorted at Berenger’s dry quips, and scrunched up his face as he puzzled his way through his own meandering anecdotes. It was all Ancel, just sometimes a little more. Something extra layered on top without obscuring the pattern beneath, a subtlety but one that could make all the difference.
Berenger of all people understood. The key to an undercover persona was not to transform into somebody else. It was to find the parts of yourself that fit what you needed, and let those come through where they could. To show a different angle to the same picture—angles that Ancel shimmered seamlessly between, down on the floor, being every man’s individual fantasy.
Abruptly, Berenger wondered what his own fantasy was. He didn't have to wonder long. He’d made it rather clear, hadn’t he, presuming to buy that drink, to show off the fact that he saw through one of the veneers of the club. He’d told Ancel quite plainly that his own fantasy was, in fact, reality. And Ancel had, immediately, played it out.
He was good at what he did. Very good.
The temperature had dropped by the time Ancel and Kallias sidled their way off the floor. The guests of the club had been trickling out steadily as the hour got later, and several more took the departure of the performers as their cue to turn in. Berenger pushed his way out the door with the rest of them, only to linger on the pavement in front. Waiting for the others to pass by in varying levels of tipsiness before slipping off around to the side street.
It took several minutes for the club’s back door to open, minutes that Berenger spent shivering occasionally in the cool air. It reminded him of the night he and Ancel had met. And just like that night, when the door finally clicked open from the inside it was to reveal Ancel with his face completely bare, without even the lighter-than-stage makeup that he wore on the club floor.
The dancer smiled. And greeted, “Hey."
He was beautiful, without the wrappings. Not that he wasn’t beautiful with them too, but it was a different kind of beauty. In performance the shining lips, shadowed eyelids, and accentuated lashes suited him well, like the final paint strokes on a perfectly-styled portrait. But here, like this, he was just a young man with a handsome face and a comely smile, that gorgeous long hair loosely framing his face and spilling over his shoulders. Berenger vaguely recalled from their time on the floor that he never powdered his face too thickly, not enough to cover the smattering of freckles across his cheeks and nose—too integral a part of his appearance they were, perhaps, with his red hair and green eyes. But with the rest of his features devoid of artificial colour, they stood out even more starkly against his pale skin. Adding a level of dimension which, on that soft expression, threatened to be disarmingly charming.
Berenger liked it. For two reasons, in fact. One was because he was a straightforward person who like straightforward things, brown jackets and plainly lovely young men included. The second was the idea that this was something that everyone else in that audience, every other admirer didn’t get to see. Something hidden, something real. Accurate or not that idea may be.
Berenger said for the second time that night, “Good evening.” Then, breaking his attention from Ancel’s face, he looked quizzically down over the outfit the dancer had changed into. It was much less elaborate than his performance ensembles but nonetheless only a pair of plain black cloth shorts that barely qualified as shorts, and a light cardigan that fell open to reveal his bare chest underneath. His feet were also bare. Berenger asked, “Are you not leaving?”
Ancel stepped back against the wall, holding the door open with one outstretched arm. “Not yet,” he replied. “Come in.”
With a last inhale of crisp night air, Berenger complied.
They ran into Kallias in the corridors on the way in. He and Ancel exchanged a couple words, mostly work talk about costumes and starting times. Tomorrow was Teraday, which meant the oft-proclaimed big show for the start of the weekend was coming. And proclaimed again it was going to be, apparently.
“You’re coming tomorrow, right?” Kallias broke off the tail end of his previous conversation, suddenly, to direct the question at Berenger.
Berenger glanced at Ancel, lips quirking. “Sure," he replied.
“Excellent.” The other performer’s voice was bright, and endearingly lilted with an Akielon accent. He offered with a grin, “Our dance routine tomorrow will be my choreography.”
That earnt a raise of Berenger’s eyebrows. “You dance too? I didn't realise.”
“Not as much, and not on the pole. That’s all Ancel’s domain.” He accompanied the words with a friendly pat to his fellow’s shoulder, which he was standing close enough to reach. “But we do doubles routines on the stage sometimes, and trade off on choreography.”
“I’m sure it will be a sight, then.” The young man’s enthusiasm was infectious. Berenger felt his smile crease further. He asked, “Do you also write your own music?”
But the reply to that question came from a new voice. “No, that’s mostly me.”
Berenger’s head snapped around. The voice was deep, with a hint of an accent but much less pronounced. And it had come from the tall Akielon man who'd just rounded the corner.
“Laurent and Erasmus compose some too, especially the vocals,” Damianos continued, coming to a halt in a few strides of his long legs. “But most of the music is mine.”
It was undoubtedly Vasilias. Berenger matched in a moment the olive skin, large frame, dark eyes and hair, even the pleasant smile on his face. His demeanour was warm, welcoming despite his size. A charisma he probably got from his father. Berenger took a breath, no longer than ordinary, and carefully schooled the recognition from his expression.
“You do a great job,” he said, honestly.
Beside him, Ancel gave a small snort, and took a step closer to rest a hand on Berenger’s shoulder. The contact seemed to tingle down Berenger’s arm even through the layers of cloth. It was the first time they’d touched since his faux-pas on the club floor.
“That’s Damen,” Ancel said drolly, both an introduction and a statement. “Useful for things other than looming over disorderly customers until they’re scared into leaving, believe it or not.”
Damianos laughed good-naturedly in reply. With a broad grin he said to Ancel, “And I pay your wages, don’t you forget.”
“Please, I know you pawn off all your accounting to Laurent. One day he’s going to have you sign the entire club over to him without you noticing.”
Damianos laughed again. "He probably already has,” he replied with all cheer. And then his expression settled as he said, “You’re locking up again tonight? I’ll leave you to it.”
Then with a nod to Kallias, and another to Berenger, Damianos turned and disappeared again down the corridor. Reaching down to fasten the buttons of his jacket—also nicely fitting but simpler than Ancel’s usual wardrobe—Kallias addressed Ancel to say, “See you tomorrow.” Then turning to Berenger, “And you too, Berry.” He stepped past them to head for the back door.
Berenger blinked after him, only slightly owlishly. Several seconds after the door clicked shut, he turned back to Ancel with, “Berry?”
Ancel gave another snort, loudly than before, and rolled his eyes. His eyes were large and expressive, even without deep black liner and coloured shadow around them. “The others,” he admitted slowly, “may have taken it upon themselves to nickname you.”
Berenger’s first reaction to that, silly-sounding nicknames aside, was a brief flicker of warmth. “You told the others about me?”
Ancel rolled his eyes again, but a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. It looked fond. “You could hardly be missed, tramping around backstage.”
“You’re the one who invited me,” Berenger said mildly.
“Yes I did.” The curve of Ancel’s lips sharpened. “Not wishing it was Kallias instead, are you?”
Light eyebrows raised, quite high. “Oh, you know,” he said lightly. “Thought you might have a thing for dancers.”
“Oh I, uh,” Berenger broke off awkwardly. “I don’t—” Almost involuntarily, his gaze dropped down Ancel's body, doing a sweep of his well-shaped form and immodest amount of exposed skin. “—think so?”
Ancel laughed. A loud, open sound, head tipping so that his long hair swished against his back. “You really are sweet,” he said afterwards, tone as fond as his smile. He turned and resumed walking, leading the way to his dressing room. “The others think so too, you know. Well, Laurent only said he was surprised he didn’t walk in on you bending me over my dressing table. But that’s basically a declaration of sweetness. From Laurent.”
Berenger’s gait hitched. Unbidden, he found himself flushing at the bold words, thrown out so casually. He said for the second time, “Uh—”
Ancel tossed a look back over his shoulder, smirking. “His words, not mine.” Then, rounding the corner to the last stretch of corridor, he continued, “Don’t mind Laurent. He always takes a while to warm up to people.”
That, at least, made sense. Berenger didn’t know if or how many of the staff knew exactly who Damianos was, but if anyone did it would be his lover. The man would have good reason to be careful, especially of people around the club.
Berenger took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. After a beat he posed, cautiously, “Does that happen often?”
“What, Laurent warming up to people?”
“No, the other thing. The, uh, dressing table thing.”
Reaching his door, Ancel halted. Berenger thought for a second he might laugh again, but instead when he looked over his shoulder again his expression was soft. And so was his voice.
“No,” he replied. “It doesn’t happen often.”
He opened the door.
The first thing that Berenger’s gaze happened to fall on as he entered the room was, of course, the dressing table. He felt the heat returning to his cheeks, even as he mentally scolded himself for his lack of control. It was his very job to keep a handle on his expressions. Only, it wasn’t like his job had often taken him to places like this. Or given him practice at reining in his reactions to someone like Ancel.
His somewhat ridiculous instinct to avoid moving closer to the dressing table was, at least, waylaid by Ancel immediately spinning on his heel and pointing a finger at him, then at the couch.
“You,” Ancel commanded promptly, “there. I need the space.”
Bemused, Berenger did as he was told. And, taking the comment about space literally, sat himself horizontally like Ancel had done the previous night. He drew his legs up off the floor and over the opposite arm rest. Before he could ask why, Ancel clasped his hands in front of his shoulders, planted his feet under his hips, and raised himself up onto his toes. Then back down, and again.
“I’m going to do some practice after the club closes,” he said. “We ran tomorrow’s show with everyone this afternoon before opening, but I want to get on the pole and do some work on my own moves. My eyes are up here.”
“Hm?” Berenger looked up from admiring the flex of Ancel’s well-defined calves. Blinking, he replied, “Your legs look very strong.”
Turning his feet slightly outwards, Ancel switched said legs into doing squats. He hummed. “Thank you.” His expression was amused. “Do you often compliment men like you do racehorses?”
Berenger opened his mouth. Apparently, almost a decade with the Arles Police Department hadn’t managed to prevent an inappropriate comment about riding from being the first thing that sprang to his mind. Or maybe it was Ancel bringing this out in him. Nonetheless, a moment later his brain did successfully catch up with his mouth, leaving him stumbling over a word he hadn’t actually yet enunciated, and managing only a vague inarticulate sound in reply.
Evidently, Ancel deduced the train of his unsaid thoughts nonetheless. He responded with another smirk, his eyelids falling to a hooded half-mast as he flicked back his hair with a toss of his head. “Anyway,” he said. “I thought you might appreciate a little preview.”
Pulling his mouth shut, Berenger nodded. He ventured, “I’d like that.”
Reaching his arms up above his head, Ancel began to stretch his torso to the side as the edges of the smirk softened. The side of his cardigan fell open further to expose his smooth chest and flat stomach, the pink bud of a nipple. Carelessly.
Berenger’s thought from earlier, his little nodule of a doubt, a realisation, came back to him. He shifted in his seat. Ancel seemed now to be more focused on his stretching than his companion, Berenger’s tone was subdued as he interrupted.
“Why did you invite me here?”
Ancel turned his head, eyebrow lifting at the unexpected question. “What?” Without halting, he arced to lean his stretch in the other direction. “I just said, I’m going to practice—”
“Not tonight. Last night. Why did you decide to invite me backstage?”
Ancel did halt then, standing back up straight and twisting on the balls of his bare feet to face himself more directly toward Berenger and his suddenly serious demeanour. He licked his lips with a quick flick of his pink tongue. After a blink, he said, “You wanted to say sorry.”
Berenger cast him a look. “The quality of people around here can’t be so terrible you’ve never heard an apology before.”
“No.” The word was stated sincerely, but then the corners of Ancel’s mouth were lifting into something lighter. “But you wanted to say sorry just because you’re bad at things. And you really were, so that was a little funny.”
Ancel snickered as Berenger made a small, inarticulate sound in his throat. But only briefly, before he sobered again.
“Besides,” he continued, “some men I turn down get angry, some just get embarrassed. Some try to make it up to me, but you actually put a real thought into it. That was interesting.”
Berenger’s eyebrows twitched, partway between raising and frowning. “I can’t be the only one who realises your bartender waters down drinks for the performers,” he replied. “It hardly requires a genius.”
“It’s not that they don’t realise. It’s that they don’t care.” A cock of Ancel’s head. “People like to take me at face value because that’s all they need me for.” And then he shrugged, just a small twitch of his shoulders. “So I thought, fine. You want to see me after the show, you can see me. And see how much you want me now.”
Making up their mind, Berenger’s eyebrows settled into a frown. “I don’t understand.”
One side of Ancel’s pink mouth tugged, not quite into a smile. “Most people,” he replied, “even the ones who say they want to get to know me, never really care to know me. They just want to get to know the person they already think I am.”
“And, the person I thought you were—"
The response to that, unexpectedly, was a scoff, mixed with a laugh. The tone of the next words was teasing. “Really, Berenger. Don’t think so highly of yourself.”
Berenger could only blink at that, and the baffled look on his face earned another laugh. After a beat he managed, “I still don’t understand.”
The next shrug was looser, an easy fluid motion. “Maybe I would have played you, once,” Ancel admitted, tone light. “If you looked a real rich bastard, or if I really wanted you to buy me for the night. But I don’t do that anymore.”
Berenger’s mouth fell open, very slightly, at the offhand way those words had been tossed out.
"That’s one of the nicer tones of voice in which I’ve been called a whore."
Ancel, for his part, didn’t seem unaware of the weight of what he’d said, but neither was he contrite about it. Instead, he continued to hold Berenger’s gaze, chin tipping up a fraction as if in challenge.
“It’s alright,” he said crisply. “I’m not ashamed of where I’ve been, or what I do. But things aren’t like that at Black Light.” Then his lips curled again, letting the incursion of seriousness leech away again from between them. It was replaced it with something coy as he added, “I like what I do, Berenger. I like performing, I like making men want me. I don’t have to want them, though.” And here his tone grew even more arch. “I already turned you down first, remember.”
A muscle on the side of Berenger’s face twitched. He took a moment to process all that, shifting in his seat again. Finally he asked, “What made you change your mind?”
“It’s not complicated, honestly.” A small huff. Amused, not displeased. “I liked you. I had a good time. Didn’t you?”
Didn’t he. The throwaway question hit Berenger like an arrow unexpectedly punching through a shield at a weak spot he hadn’t known was there.
"You have an in, Detective. Don’t waste it."
He was doing his job. He was on a case, he was an officer of the law and that had defined his entire adult life. But, he knew, he didn’t have to do it like this. He could have thought of other means in which to investigate the club without approaching Ancel again, or at least without encouraging him in—in this way. And even if he couldn’t have, if he’d had to go through the motions, it didn’t have to be like this. He didn’t have to have a good time.
But, the fact of it was, he was having a good time. And that much wasn’t the case, it was just him. Him and this beautiful dancer whose fiery character was as unique as the shade of his hair.
Police work never took a break, not in Arles, but it did have its lulls and its time spent in wait for some response or development or other. They learnt to take their moments where they could get them. Berenger was doing his job, with his chief’s orders and tacit approval even. But maybe, just maybe, Ancel was right. Maybe it wasn’t that complicated. Maybe he could also have this.
“Yeah,” he replied. His voice sounded slightly hoarse, though possibly that was only to his own ears. “I did.”
Ancel’s smile reached his eyes.
There was a pause as both of them fell quiet. After a few seconds of it, Ancel shifted back into the pose that had been interrupted earlier, resuming his stretch. But after another few seconds of that, something else occurred to Berenger. He was a touch apologetic as he interrupted again.
“Wait, but,” he began, as green eyes flicked over to glance back his way. He gave a vague sweep of his head, attempting to encompass the general air of the dancer’s appearance tonight, the lack of makeup, the plain clothes. “Why all this, then?”
Ancel followed the gaze, looking down like he was wondering whether he’d missed something about himself. Then realisation flickered across his face, of Berenger’s meaning. When he glanced back up, it was through his lashes. “I know you like it,” he stated. His voice was slightly breathy. “Just because I’m too good at it, does that mean I can’t put a little effort into getting you hot and bothered?”
His reply, when Berenger flushed yet again, was a hearty low laugh.
Ancel finished out the rest of his warmup routine in silence, Berenger watching slightly wide-eyed as he showed off the full extent of his flexibility. When his breathing was starting to come a little faster, a light sheen of sweat moistening his forehead with his effort, a knock finally came on the door. This time, the person on the other side waited for Ancel’s call to enter.
It was Jord. He gave Berenger a brief nod of greeting when he spotted him, both unphased and unsurprised. His words were also brief, as he merely shot, “All yours,” at Ancel before disappearing from the doorway again.
Ancel pushed himself up from where he’d been sitting with his legs extended in front, and his torso laid down almost flat over them. He called to Berenger as he strolled out of the room, “Come on.”
The club looked different empty, like a gutted ship that still showed the negative spaces where it wanted for a crew. With both house and stage lights on, they had a brightly-lit vantage over the whole floor as they stepped out of the stage door. Berenger could spot not only the empty bottles and other fragments of rubbish left on the tables or chairs or floor, but also the odd dark puddle of a spilt drink too. He asked, “Doesn’t anyone sweep and clean up after the night?”
“Jord will do it tomorrow, in the better light,” Ancel replied. “Or sometimes Orlant. He’s our stage man, does microphones and the show lights. His tech room’s next to Laurent’s dressing room.” An edge of mirth tinged his tone. “He’s the one who so kindly delivered my martini.”
Berenger nodded with an unbidden upward curve of his lips. He also idly recalled the closed door closest to the stage from his mentally mapped layout of the club. Ancel took a few steps, but instead of making for the pole he headed for the staircase. As he leant a hand on the bannister he said, “Let me grab the keys from Damen’s office now.”
Berenger hastened to follow, though he kept his motions casual, just trailing behind so as to not advertise his desire to see into Damianos’s apartment. The door at the top landing opened without having to be unlocked, the space behind it dark and unlit. Ancel stepped inside without altering that fact. Berenger lingered in the doorway as he did a quick surreptitious scan of the room.
It was clearly the office in question. In the gloom he could make out a large wooden desk, neatly arranged with a row of pens and a small stack of papers. One wooden chair half pushed-in before it, and another more comfortable looking stuffed chair to the side. The reason Ancel hadn’t switched on the light became clear as Berenger noticed, not electric bulbs, but what appeared to be old-fashioned lamps mounted on each of the walls. In the far end of the room lay a second door, presumably leading further into the apartment, though right now it was shut.
Berenger asked, “What’s with the lamps?”
Ancel looked over as he snatched a set of keys off a hook on the wall and spun back on his heel, appearing neither suspicious nor alarmed to see Berenger had followed him. Then his gaze flicked over to the closest lamp and he answered, “Oh, this is an old historic building that Damen bought to turn into the club. He put electric lights in downstairs but kept the oil lamps in the apartment.”
“Oil? Not even gas?”
“No gas fixtures in here, apparently. Damen says he likes the glow. He’s an ‘enjoy the basics’ sort of guy.”
Berenger retreated a step to let Ancel back through the door, and then the door snicked shut behind him. Ancel hopped down the stairs on light feet. When he reached the bottom he said, “You can sit on the piano stool,” as he headed toward the stool himself. “But, one second.”
He halted when he arrived and turned to where Berenger was still trailing behind him. Then, without breaking eye contact, he rolled his shoulders and let the fabric of his cardigan slip down. Berenger’s gaze automatically flicked down his exposed torso, skin mostly hairless, build slender but with the barest definition that suggested at abdominal muscles. When he looked back up, Ancel’s smirk had deepened a clear fraction.
Shucking the item of clothing, Ancel dropped it and the keys onto the closed lid of the piano. Then he reached down and slid the long fingers of one hand under the ledge of the padded seat of the stool, lifting so that the top hinged upwards like the lid of a giant jewellery box. From the cavity beneath he extracted a small cloth bag of dusty grey, and tugged open the drawstrings. He tipped it on its end and proceeded to gently shake the mouth over his hands.
“Chalk,” he explained as Berenger watched. “To help with gripping the pole.”
Berenger eyed the now white-frosted palms of Ancel’s hands curiously as the dancer reached down to also pat some of the chalk powder down the sides and back of his knees, along his inner thighs, then even on his elbows and underarms. He recalled the moves he’d seen Ancel perform where he’d hung off the pole without his hands. And also recalled something else.
As Ancel pulled shut the drawstring of the bag once more, Berenger stated with interest, “You have to stay gripped to the pole for those positions you do.”
There was a soft thud as the chalk bag thumped back into the piano stool with a small puff of powder, and then a larger one as the seat was lowered shut. “Yes?”
“Then,” Berenger paused, pursing his lips, “how do you do it wearing those high boots? Or the gloves?”
“Ah.” Ancel’s smile looked pleased at the question, and at the prospect of explaining his craft. “The boots and gloves are patent leather. It’s the one material that shines under the lights and is sticky to the metal of the pole, so it works out pretty well for my performances. Not the cheapest stuff, but I convinced Damen it was for a good cause. Well Laurent helped. With the convincing him, I mean.” He twitched his eyebrows suggestively, then continued. “They actually grip the pole even better than bare skin. Makes things a bit easier if you need extra help with any moves.”
Berenger gave a small smile at the obvious cadence of passion he could hear in Ancel’s voice. He took a seat on the piano stool as previously directed, and asked, “Do you need extra help?”
“No.” Under the bright lights but without his stage makeup, Ancel’s face looked curiously flat in the way that oversaturated brightness brought. But even so, this close up, Berenger could see the flutter of his lashes as he winked. “But I look good in them.”
Yes. He did.
The dancer twisted on the heels of his bare feet and headed for centre stage. Stepping up to the pole, he wasted no time in gripping it with one hand above his head and pulling himself into a simple spin with one leg hooked at the knee, now familiar from his previous performances. After a few times around, he hopped back down, walked in a small half circle, and repeated the same move on his other side.
Despite his captive audience, it was clearly not a show. Ancel went through his first moves like a drill, repeating each one at least once with his arms and legs mirrored in the opposite configuration. Sometimes he stopped and started, jumping down halfway with a small sound of dissatisfaction and re-adjusting his hold. Sometimes he lingered on a certain one, looping through it several extra times to perfect his speed or pose or transitions in and out.
It was fascinating. A display of technique and grace but more than that, a demonstration of the method of the practitioner—who did what he did not through the mystical talents he might seem to exude in performance, but through simple training and hard work. And to Berenger, who’d witnessed the end result of such effort twice over, it seemed even more remarkable this way. To see the dancer try and sometimes misstep, showing off the flaws in his motions and also the endeavours to amend them. Ancel wasn’t perfect, not an untouchable spectre on a stage, he was real. And he was in reach.
Finally, after exhausting the basic moves, Ancel stepped around so that his back was to the pole, one shoulder pressed to the metal. Then, reaching up and back to cup the pole with both hands just above his head, he slowly began to raise his feet from the floor. Like the second hand of a clock, his body pivoted in a smooth arc around the point of contact at his shoulder, legs swinging upwards until they were horizontal with the ground, then further, until his knees and ankles hooked high on the pole over his head. For a moment he stayed there, his body bent almost in half at a slightly awkward angle. And then, just as smoothly, Ancel let go one hand and moved it to grab the pole again close to its base, so that his arms were split apart and his chest now faced the pole. The repositioning let his head hang straight downward, the long fall of his hair brushing the stage floor. Then he used the leverage to push his torso further from the pole, separating his legs, one remaining with the ankle hooked on whilst the other extended out behind him.
Berenger didn’t mean to interrupt. Ancel’s attention was obviously focused on himself, his own motions and poses, so intently that he could have forgotten anyone else was watching. But the words passed Berenger’s lips absently, a mutter of subtle wonder that was hardly louder in his own ears than the beating of his heart.
“Are you ever afraid of falling?”
As soon as he’d said them, Berenger felt slightly embarrassed at how inane the question had sounded. When Ancel didn’t answer straight away, he thought maybe the dancer hadn’t heard, hadn’t noticed in the depths of his concentration. Bringing his legs back together, he let go his hands as Berenger had seen him do several times now, hanging only by the wrap of his legs around the gleaming metal that was now dusted in some parts with white. Instead of spreading his arms to the sides though, he held them palm down in front of himself, facing the floor. Dropping downward at a speed slow enough to not incite any fear that he wasn’t in control, he slid until his palms made contact. There, he unhooked his legs to first balance into a handstand, then walked his hands forward until he could lower his feet down to the ground. He stood back up on two legs and met Berenger’s eyes again with a small smile.
“What’s performance without a little risk?” he said, a hint of cheekiness in his tone. “Gets the blood pumping, for me and the audience.” He laughed. “Or at least just me. I started off as a fire dancer, you know.”
“Fire dancer?” Berenger raised his eyebrows. “In here?”
Another laugh. “With these wooden floors? No. I used to do that out there.” He inclined his head in a vague notion toward the door, smile fading, some of the lightness leaking away from his face. But then he shrugged another of those loose shrugs. “Street orphan’s lot. But I managed to get in with a group of street performers, and they taught me the fire dance.”
Berenger swallowed. Another sliver of the dancer’s past, not pretty but presented unflinchingly. He let no pity show on his face as he asked, “How did that go?”
“Not too badly, for a while, but it never earned a lot. Lucky for me, one day a man saw me outside and told me I’d make more dancing in his club.”
“No, before that. This one owned a nice fancy gentleman’s club. The kind with lots of private rooms upstairs.”
There it was. Berenger swallowed again. He nodded in understanding, trying to match Ancel’s blank matter-of-factness.
“Anyway,” Ancel continued blandly, “they had a couple of pole dancers there. Not doing the kind of dance I do now though, simpler stuff.”
Raunchier stuff, Berenger read the meaning. With probably even less clothing.
“Still, they taught me the basics. Enough that I could start trying my own moves and building my own routines.” Ancel’s smile returned, genuine and warm. He finished, “Then I met Laurent and the two of us got together. When Damen opened this place, we both came here.”
Berenger took in all that in the space of a long breath. Not only the story, but the way Ancel bore his own history with mild but steely pride. And it was worthy of pride too, doing what he did, going from the streets to wowing crowds with feats of his skill and strength and body. His stage might not be in some expensive theatre in Palace Gardens, but it fit him. This bright-eyed and fiery-haired young man, with his flirty smile and his effortlessly seductive manner, his handsomely beautiful face and vibrant titillating costumes.
Matching Ancel's smile, he replied, “I'm glad you did.”
Their gazes held for a while. Before Ancel stepped back and lined himself up to do another iteration of his previous move, with his other shoulder against the pole. He continued with several more harder-looking tricks that had his body arching either upside-down or stretching horizontally outward, abdominal muscles tensing with the effort of holding himself rigid. Until finally he lowered himself down in a slow graceful motion and shuffled sideways over to the open area of the stage.
“Alright,” he said as he shot Berenger a glance, falling to his knees and tossing his hair over his shoulders. “You’ll have to imagine the lights, think of big up and down flashes in time with the music. And the music, we’ll have Erasmus on the piano, and Laurent singing along with the dance. Oh and Kallias on the floor mirroring me through the beginning on the other side, of course.”
And with that, he threw up his arms, the looseness of his limbs replaced in a split-second with the careful control of performance. And fell into his routine.
Berenger didn’t do as he was told. He didn’t imagine anything, didn’t think of how the stage would look tomorrow night with all the parts put together, with the added layers of glamour and glitz. The show that everyone told of being so impressive, right then Berenger didn’t care for any of it, didn’t need anything beyond Ancel with no costume in an empty club, the skin of his long limbs almost gleaming under the lights from the points of his toes to the swan-like curve of his neck. The rises and falls, whirls and spins of his form were silent except for the soft drag of his bare feet against the wooden floor, the occasional snick of skin as he performed a gliding move down the pole, and the increasingly deafening thump of Berenger’s own pulse in his ears. He was like the sprites of legend, whose dance needed no song because its soundless rhythm was a song in itself. Whose glimpses through the trees would lure men deeper and deeper into the forest and to their deaths.
By the time he finished with a final dismount, a final pose, Ancel’s breath was coming hard. His cheeks were flushed pink, the colour accentuating the spots of his freckles, his eyes clear. When he looked at Berenger, his gaze was heavy.
There was something in the air between them and it was palpable. Berenger had acknowledged from the beginning, of course, that Ancel was attractive, that Berenger himself even was attracted to him. Attraction was nothing unusual, but it had been a while since Berenger had acted on it, a long time since he’d been with anyone. And despite everything about this circumstance, where he was, what he was doing, who they were, the want that suddenly suffused him from the surface of his goose-bumped skin down to his very bones was far beyond some simple acknowledgement.
Whatever it was that Ancel saw on Berenger’s face, it darkened his own. Berenger could imagine what he was feeling just then, blood hot and muscles singing from his exertions, could read it in the flush of his face and the too-quick up and down of his chest. With sure steps he closed the distance between them, coming to a halt just before Berenger’s seat. He was tall, Berenger had to tip his head back to keep their eye contact. This close, he could hear Ancel’s breath.
Slowly, Ancel raised a hand and laid it on Berenger’s chest, high near his shoulder. The very tip of his thumb extended past the collar of his shirt to rest at the base of his throat, one single point of skin-to-skin contact between them. He spoke in a single exhale.
“Walk me home?”
Despite everything, where he was, what he was doing, they were just two people. A detective who’d lived for his job almost as long as he could remember, and a young man who played the desire of an entire room like a well-tuned instrument and wore his past as a badge of honour. Berenger answered, because he wanted to. It wasn’t that complicated.
- - -
Ancel lived in a tiny apartment a couple minutes’ walk from Black Light through the chilly air. The side walls were close enough together one could cross between them in four paces, but he had no roommates. And the bed wasn’t too narrow.
The faint smell of expensive Akielon cigar smoke clung stubbornly to Ancel's hair. It wasn't Berenger's favourite scent, but the rest of him smelt clean, like warm skin and physical effort and excitement. That skin glowed golden in the yellow light of the single lightbulb on the ceiling, the dancer's lips full and shining as Berenger pulled back from kissing him against the small stove behind the door that served as a kitchenette. They shaped a gasp as Berenger tugged his coat and cardigan off one shoulder, following the motion of his hand with nips of his teeth down the line of Ancel’s throat to his collarbone. Ancel pressed his palm against Berenger’s own shoulder, pushing the two of them apart a fraction to make room to slip the garments off completely. They crumpled to the floor into a silky pile next to their shoes.
Berenger’s jacket had joined them by the time they fell onto the comfortably-sized mattress, his shirt halfway there too. Ancel made a noise in his throat when he undid the buttons of Berenger's union suit with deft haste, and ran his hand questingly down his newly exposed chest. It sounded appreciative.
“Wow,” he said, more air than voice, “you’re pretty trim under all that brown.”
Berenger let out a small huff of a chuckle. “I appreciate that coming from you,” he replied, gliding his own hand from Ancel’s hip up along his firm stomach.
Ancel made an attempt at a shrug, shoulders pressed into his—previously—neatly-made sheets. “I keep fit for my job,” he said, nonchalantly.
So did Berenger. But he couldn’t say that.
The tiny dancing shorts slipped off easily under the tugging of both their sets of fingers, for all how tight they looked. There was of course nothing underneath. Berenger leant his weight onto an elbow to let Ancel finish kicking them off, immediately catching his raised ankle afterward and running his hand up the length of that long leg like he had their first night on the floor. This time he made it, sliding up to the soft flesh of Ancel's inner thigh, and the less soft flesh further up framed by a neatly-groomed thatch of ginger curls.
"Checking it's real?"
"Hm?" Distracted, it took Berenger a second to process that Ancel had spoken again.
"It's all natural, I'm red all over."
"Oh." Berenger huffed another chuckle, turning his other wrist in a circle so that his fingers caught in the brilliant copper strands from Ancel's head. It was as silky as it looked. "I never doubted it."
Without warning, he planted one foot flat on the mattress and hooked the other around the back of Berenger’s knee, twisting in a sharp movement to reverse their positions. Berenger’s shoulder knocked up against the wall as he suddenly found himself on his back. He let out a small grunt, in surprise not pain. In a second Ancel slithered firmly on top of him and into his arms, up to cover the sound with the press of his mouth. He was an aggressive kisser, tongue pushing sure and insistent between their joined lips, before he pulled back with a last gentle nip. Their gazes met. Ancel’s cheeks were flushed almost as warmly pink as they had been earlier before they’d stepped out into the cold.
He asked, now truly mostly a gasp, “Have you thought about this? Imagined having me?”
Before Berenger could reply, Ancel shifted to cup him firmly through his trousers, fingers not just gripping but massaging in a steady pull. He groaned.
Apparently taking that as assent, Ancel continued, "What did you want? How did you want it to happen?”
Berenger hadn't imagined it, actually. Not exactly. Hadn’t quite gotten around to putting any specific picture to it. But, nonetheless, the answer came to him there, with Ancel straddling him with those strong dancer’s legs, Berenger’s fingers over his slim hips.
“Like this. You on top.”
Ancel swooped in for another deep, almost sucking kiss, before pulling off again and this time sliding sideways off the bed. He shot a quick, “I’ll be back,” before darting off toward the kitchen area.
Berenger took the time to unbuckle his belt, and undo the buttons of his fly with a frisson of relief. His eyes followed the long line of Ancel’s nude form as he hastened across the room, hair streaming loose down his back all the way to the curve of his pert buttocks, skin dotted all over with the same freckles that graced his nose and cheeks. When he turned to the side to open one of the cupboards and reach within, Berenger could see the proof of his excitement peeking out from around his thigh.
When Ancel returned he was holding a small stoppered glass bottle that, looking closely, Berenger was fairly certain was cooking oil. A spark of a realisation hit him, the fact that Ancel apparently didn’t do this often enough to be properly supplied at home. It was possible even that he hadn’t at all, since the end of his previous profession—but, Berenger let the thought go. Now was not the time for such speculation.
Dropping the bottle to the mattress next to Berenger’s shoulder, Ancel swung a leg back over to straddle him, this time sliding lower down his body. He brushed Berenger’s own hands away, reaching inside his open trousers to also undo the buttons of his union suit, finally spreading that too to expose him to the open air. But only for a moment, before the slight chill of the room on his overheated flesh was replaced by the warm heat of Ancel’s mouth.
Berenger sighed, keeping his head raised, not moving his gaze from that fiery bent head. Ancel was good at this, skilled in the flicks and presses of his tongue and the steady slide of his lips, the firm grip of his hand when he brought that up to help. But it was more than that, he was focused. Attending to the task of pleasuring Berenger with the same intent concentration as he used when practicing his dance drills. And that, that was exquisite.
When Berenger felt his hips beginning to twitch, the muscles of his thighs tensing as small but rough sounds escaped his throat, he was abruptly greeted by the return of the cool air as Ancel halted and pulled away. He winced slightly at the sensation, and the loss thereof. Ancel looked up, with lips even more slick than before. He reached for the bottle.
Chest moving too fast up and down, Berenger rasped, "Can I?" He scrambled for the bottle himself.
The corners of Ancel’s mouth tugged sideways as he moved higher up Berenger’s body. Then he nodded, and leant down to bring their mouths together again.
The fact that Ancel didn’t stop kissing him, or mouthing at his jaw, or the spot under it where it met his neck, made it slightly difficult for Berenger to pop out the bottle stop and oil his fingers. But at least it wasn’t too hard to work blind as he slid one finger into the hot clench of Ancel’s body, then another, and another, as he swallowed the sighs from that insistent mouth. It was probably sloppy, and most definitely left oil stains on his trousers that were hanging open but which he still hadn’t removed, but Ancel didn’t seem to care. It was worth the cost of the laundry.
Ancel didn’t let him go too slowly, too carefully, or for too long before he breathed, “Enough,” and leant himself upright. He grabbed the bottle almost roughly out of Berenger’s hand, pouring a surprisingly well-controlled measure into one palm, which he dropped to complete Berenger’s side of the preparations. Then he re-stoppered and threw the bottle down, shifting his knees and readjusting his weight some more, leaning his non-oiled palm onto Berenger’s chest as he found his position.
“Should I—” Berenger made to motion toward removing the remainder of his clothing, his open trousers and union suit that been pushed off his shoulders but no further, but the words cut off in a long, ragged exhale as Ancel ignored them and began to sink himself down. He didn’t give himself much time to adjust before beginning to move.
Berenger placed his hands on Ancel’s thighs, feeling them tense and flex as the dancer began to ride him in a steady, unwavering rhythm. It was a wonderful vantage point, this position, just as he’d expected when he’d suggested it. Watching Ancel’s body as he moved, almost as smoothly as when he was on stage, from his thighs and hips to the muscles of his stomach to the slight motion of his shoulders as he kept balance on his hands. Berenger could feel the hint of long, well-trimmed nails on said hands where they pressed over his chest, in between the intermittent tickles when the ends of Ancel's hair fell forward over his bare skin.
Ancel in bed wasn’t like someone might expect a person like him to be, with seductive arches of his back and wild cries of pleasure. Instead, he was quiet. Silent in fact, except for the heavy pants of his breath and the occasional soft moan. And in this too he applied himself with eager focus, rocking and raising his hips, maintaining his pace with almost a goal-driven determination. Like he was singularly intent on seeing Berenger fall apart.
Berenger had expected this would be tiring, for Ancel. Had thought maybe they’d stop and change to an easier position after a little time, except the dancer showed no signs of his stamina failing. Eventually, Berenger had the mental wherewithal to move his oil-slick hand up his thigh to touch him properly, which gained him an appreciative gasp. He settled into finding the best angle so that he could mostly hold his fist still and let Ancel rocked up into it with each tilt of his hips. Ancel's pace increased, then, just a fraction.
Berenger came first, breaking with a deep groan that stayed more in his throat than it made it out. Ancel didn’t still, riding him through it until he slumped boneless back into the tousled sheets, then finally coming to a stop without pulling up or off him. With a flash of hazy awareness, Berenger remembered to move his hand, to squeeze and tug with a little more deliberation, stroking Ancel off. It didn’t take long at all before the man above him tensed and let out a choked-off gasp, as warm wetness spilt over his fingers and onto the bare skin of his chest and stomach. It was a gasp that Berenger mirrored as he felt the sudden contraction of his lover's body from where he was still buried inside, spent and sensitive.
Ancel did pull away, eventually. Stood and padded off somewhere, maybe to the kitchen or maybe to the small adjacent bathroom, Berenger didn’t even know from where he lay sprawled and still with the post-orgasmic rush of satisfaction strumming through his body. Ancel came back after a little time with a wad of tissue, cleaning Berenger up before he had the mind to offer to do it himself. He mumbled a thanks.
When Ancel came back again from where-ever—presumably the garbage bin this time, and the light switch which he'd hit to plunge the room into darkness—it was to shoo Berenger off where they’d been lying over the top layer of blankets. Berenger instinctively let out a mild sound of protest, but then forced his heavy limbs to move, sitting up on the bed to push himself to standing beside it. When Ancel lifted the blanket and slid underneath, still naked, and shifted up against the wall to leave plenty of room, Berenger took the tacit invitation and finally stripped off his trousers and somewhat sweat-damp union suit. He followed Ancel between the sheets after letting his clothes drop unceremoniously to the ground. His trousers would probably be wrinkled in the morning, lying in a heap like that. He left them there.
It was warm in the bed, already heated from their bodies above. Ancel lay on his side, eyes half-closed, a tired ghost of a smile on his lips. There was enough room in the bed for Berenger to fit without the two of them touching skin-to-skin, but he could feel the brush of Ancel’s long hair against his bare shoulder. After the slightest hesitation, he leant over a pecked a small kiss over Ancel’s mouth.
“Good night,” he said. Almost a whisper.
The smile twitched deeper, even as green eyes drifted the rest of the way shut.
A union suit is a full-body, one-piece garment that was the common form of underwear in the early 20th century. Ancel doesn't wear one because he wears dancer's clothes, and also because I don't think even he could do a sexy strip-tease out of this thing.
Pole dancers these days would probably more use specially formulated grip aids than just chalk, like this one. Ancel's factoid about patent leather is true, and it's a popular material for pole boots for the reason that it still lets you do leg-grip moves, and can even help if you're struggling. Plus, it's shiny :P
Ancel's first practice spin is either a Hollywood Spin from the first chapter or a Front Hook Spin, another basic move. It's always a good idea to practice moves on both sides (i.e. with right hand on top, and also with left hand on top), to strengthen your body equally and to be able to do them in either direction depending on what a routine needs. His more advanced move is a Shoulder Mount, which is like an invert except the pole is behind your shoulder instead of under one arm (making it harder since you can't just tip your body straight back upside-down). From there he goes into Extended Butterfly, then into another Inverted Crucifix to slide down into a handstand.
I have also compiled a visual glossary masterpost of all pole moves in the story on tumblr here (mild spoilers for later chapters), along with some bonus pics.
After several seconds of no answer, Berenger rapped on the bathroom door behind which he could hear the barely audible buzz of the radio. He called again, "Coffee's ready, Ancel."
"Shhh," came the reply, voiced through the wood at a somewhat impressive volume.
With a chuckle, Berenger turned and made the small number of steps back to the kitchen table. Ancel followed a late morning radio drama and had taken to stealing behind the closed door of the adjoining bathroom to listen without waking Berenger. It must have been up to a good part.
They’d found out, in the last two weeks, that Ancel tended to wake first. Berenger was still getting used to the late nights, and the sunlight that streamed too early through too-thin curtains often had him sleeping poorly in the mornings and lazing in bed later as a result. It had been a long while since he’d let himself laze in bed. Sometimes he even stayed long enough that Ancel had time to finish listening to his show, and slip back in with him.
Berenger laid out the coffee on the kitchen table along with with some bread and fruit for breakfast. The paperback book that he'd abandoned the night before, in favour of letting himself be dragged toward the bed with a mouth on his neck and a hand already in his trousers, lay in one corner. It had fallen shut without keeping his page. He picked it up again now with one hand, as he sat and lifted his coffee cup to his lips with the other. Ancel kept a surprisingly good brew on hand at home. His job, it seemed, earnt him enough that he could have a few indulgences, good coffee and an apartment he didn't have to share with roommates included.
Berenger had managed to find his page and get through several more by the time he heard the bathroom door open with its usual quiet creak that sounded something like a tentative toad. Ancel stepped out dressed only in a pair of loose grey trousers—not that Berenger was in a place to comment, wearing only a bathrobe himself. His long hair was unbrushed, and a significant chunk was bunched toward one side at the back of his head in the unattractive tangle that it tended to become during sleep. Berenger smiled into the side of his coffee cup as he took another sip.
“So what happened?” he asked. “Did Angelique’s sister get pregnant? Or get married? Or die?”
Ancel pulled out the chair opposite his and sat, glaring across the tabletop with mock severity. “Angelique’s sister,” he said sternly, “is pregnant, but she’s also been asked by her husband to investigate a very important matter for his company because of her social connections. It’s not a soap.”
Berenger lifted both eyebrows, slowly, and very high. Ancel picked up a loose grape from the plate before him and mimed throwing it at Berenger. A second later, they both laughed.
Leaning over the table, Ancel picked up the coffee carafe to pour himself a cup. He asked, “What are you reading, still that poetry stuff?”
“Yes.” Berenger hadn’t had the time to read in a little while, but he’d picked the book up on impulse when he and Ancel had walked past a store a couple days earlier, eating dinner out on one of Ancel’s evenings off.
Ancel wrinkled his nose. He didn’t look cute whilst doing it. Berenger laughed again.
“You might like it, actually,” he continued, mirth still etched in his tone. “It’s Akielon.”
“I can see that,” was the reply to that, accompanied by a roll of green eyes and a nod toward the cover and its Akielon lettering.
“It’s a reprint of an old epic. Heroes, tyrants, battles, love—”
Berenger’s smile bled into something smaller, but still just visible. “Of course. Can’t have a great story without love.”
There was a scrape of wood as Ancel pulled his chair in, bringing the two of them slightly closer. He set both his elbows on the table, and leant forward. “Alright,” he said. His voice had crept just a touch toward the soft side. “Tell me the story?”
Berenger set the book on the table, pages down, open to where he was up to. “Of ‘The Conquest of Arsaces’?”
“Or of what you’ve read so far of it.”
The smile on his lips warmed further again. “Like I said, it’s a reprint of an old story. I know all of it already.”
Berenger reached over to snag a chunk of bread. On the other side of the table, Ancel matched the action. The expression on his face was attentive, despite his earlier teasing words, and he watched Berenger expectantly. Berenger reached over again for the butter, and began.
The poem opened with the emergence of the hero Arsaces, from whence it wasn’t known. Some said he was a shepherd, others a blacksmith, and yet others still a son of gods. Said gods, had they ever existed, were already long gone from the land—and yet some claimed it must be so, for his greatness was beyond this world itself.
Arsaces began his fame as a travelling gladiator. Winning every tournament he entered, fighting for no glory but his own, as terrible as he was beautiful. And it was in these travels that he met the poem’s narrator: a common citizen of the land, who throughout the entire epic was never given a name. The common man, as did every man, fell in love with Arsaces. All loved him, but he loved none. For it was said that whoever it was who won him, would also win everything that he had won.
—Here in the telling, Berenger picked his book back up, flipped back a page, and read. He translated somewhat clumsily into Veretian as he went.
They are surely gods who speak to him
With steady voices
A glance from him drives men to their knees
His sigh brings cities to ruin
I wonder if he dreams of surrender
On a bed of white flowers
Or is that the mistaken hope
Of every would-be conqueror?
The world was not made for beauty like his
“Oh here we go,” said Ancel. “And we all know what lengths people have gone to in the name of beautiful men.”
“Like retelling entire epics they don’t want to read themselves?”
The common man told Arsaces that, to win the ultimate glory, he should defeat the king of the land himself. Said king was a tyrant, leading his reign of terror from the capital, whilst each of his seven sons sat at the head of each of the seven provinces. And so Arsaces heard him, and accepted this task.
Approaching the first prince in the first province, Arsaces challenged him to single combat. The prince instead offered Arsaces the honour of joining him as his consort, but when Arsaces refused he became angered. He made the mistake of accepting the combat, and was defeated under Arsaces’s sure blade. Afterward, as the dead prince’s people clamoured for Arsaces to take his place as their new leader, he refused by telling them that they should choose the best amongst themselves to rule.
Travelling to the next province, Arsaces knew that defeating the next prince would not be so easy. But fortunately, on the way, he met a mysterious man who informed him of a weakness of the next prince that he could exploit. And so he did, and so it went—as the common man told. That each prince extended the offer to become his consort, that Arsaces instead defeated him with help from this mysterious man, and afterward instructed the people to elect the best amongst them as their new leader. That last part was, so the legend went, the origin of the kyroi system whose descendent was still found in the governmental structure of modern Akielos today.
And as the quest continued, Arsaces and his mysterious advisor grew close on their travels. Becoming companions, and brothers-in-arms, and—finally, though Arsaces had vowed it would never happen—lovers. At the end of their journey, Arsaces reached the capital and, at last, defeated the king. But shockingly, upon the tyrant’s death, it was Arsaces’s lover himself that the court nominated to be their new king.
Therein it was revealed that Arsaces’s lover was, in fact, the tyrant’s eighth bastard son, banished from the court. Arsaces lamented, thinking himself defeated. And the common man lamented with him, thinking the prophecy had come to fruition. That the man Arsaces loved would now take all he had won, that the hero had merely been used by the eighth son to clear his own way to the throne.
Only, Arsaces’s lover told him that he did not want to take his father’s place in the tyrant’s court. That Arsaces should become king himself and form a new council, made up of every new province leader that he’d left behind. So Arsaces agreed, and asked the question that each of the tyrant’s other princes had asked of him: that his lover become his consort. His lover accepted, taking the position that would become the Kyros of Ios, the seat of the king’s closest advisor.
And so the story ended. With a new era of peace and prosperity for Akielos, the people celebrating their new king, and the news spreading that the prophecy had been broken. That Arsaces was never defeated, despite his love. Except—except, the common man realised something else.
That the love that Arsaces had discovered during his journey, the love that befell him first, that overcame him most, was the love of his country and its people. That what he had won was their freedom from the tyrant who ruled them, the freedom that he had now given back to both the man he called consort and to his people. Just as the prophecy always said.
—Berenger picked the book up again, this time flipping right to the end.
In the palace he laughs with the man he won
and who was won by him
Whilst outside live the people, the land
from babes who are born to a king who loves
To fields of wheat that thrive, and beds of flowers
that spend springs blooming like our hearts
And winters dusted in white
The rustle of paper, quiet as it was, seemed to echo in the silence of the small apartment as the book fell back shut.
After several more seconds, Ancel’s lips parted.
“So the common man who loves Arsaces,” he said. “As part of the country and people that Arsaces loves, he finds his own love, in a way, requited too.”
Berenger wasn’t smiling anymore, his expression lost to the depth and tales of a time long past, paraphrased even as it had been by his telling. He was no poet himself. But his voice sounded like a smile as he replied, “Precisely.”
Ancel’s eyes twinkled in the late morning light as he grinned. “Alright,” he said after another pause, “that was a good story.”
Berenger ran a thumb along the seam of the pages. They scraped lightly against his callused skin. “I think so too.”
Ancel broke his gaze away, and picked up the remainder of his bread to take a bite. The spell dissipated from the air between them as he chewed the last of his breakfast, the lingering echo of legend fading. After that was swallowed he added mildly, “You know, I think there’s a song based on that.”
“There is. Quite a few songs over the years actually.”
“One of them I think Erasmus performs.”
“Really?” Berenger released the book to down the bottom dregs of his coffee. “I’d like to see that.”
Ancel stole a slice of orange from Berenger’s plate, and dodged when Berenger half-heartedly tried to block him. “Maybe I can ask Damen to put it in the next show.”
“Maybe you can.”
He stole another slice, the last one. “Alright,” he said again, as he finished licking his lips. “I have to get in for today’s runthrough. You’re going to work soon, aren’t you?”
A nod from Berenger, and Ancel stood, wiping the orange juice from his chin. Berenger watched as he bustled over to his dresser first to get dressed, and then to set himself to the well-practiced—and only slightly arduous—ordeal of detangling his hair. On his way to the door, he stepped in close to Berenger and leant down to plant a lingering kiss over his lips.
“See you tonight?” he said, still close enough Berenger could feel the curve of his mouth.
“See you,” Berenger echoed, running a palm down Ancel’s back as he pulled away.
Then three more steps, the squeal of a hinge less well-oiled than the bathroom one, and Ancel disappeared into the apartment stairwell. On the other side of the door, Berenger pushed his empty plate away from him and rested his hands on the table. His eyes fell on his copy of the Akielon epic.
He’d lost his page again. He sighed, just a tiny exhale that warmed his own upper lip. It wasn’t true exasperation. More like contentment. Across the room, the front door completed its slow swing back to its frame and thudded shut.
It had been two weeks that felt like the world around him was holding its breath. Two weeks of evenings under dim lights and tables that smelt of smoke and split alcohol, of nights drifting off to sleep with a warm body beside him and long hair tickling his neck. Two weeks of sheets that held the memory of clutching fingers and gasping cries of pleasure, and breakfasts at a small table that rocked if you leant on one corner.
Not that he wasn't working his case. He’d fabricated an afternoon shift job in a warehouse on the other side of Dockland to explain his whereabouts during the day, a boarding house with a strict policy against overnight guests for the few nights they didn’t spend together. He’d spent long afternoons going through files and notes, on the telephone with other investigators, even re-visiting the scenes of the murders as if he could somehow find a new breakthrough by force of will. And yet, sometimes it didn’t feel entirely real anymore. As if the narrow-walled apartment in Dockland was his life, and it was his time as a detective that was the false persona he had to slip into. The momentum he’d felt in his early days of investigation was gone, the driving force of uncovering details and connecting dots replaced by—this.
Black Light. Sometimes dropping by when it was closed to catch a big act rehearsing, or the musicians putting together a new song, or Ancel fitting someone for a new costume. Hanging around the bar when it was open, or the backstage, waiting. Always waiting. Whilst everything else he did drew just as many results as the waiting. These days, it was starting to feel more and more like he was maybe just going through the motions. Keeping himself busy enough he could still say he was investigating the murders he’d been assigned to, whilst simply living his new life in and around Damianos’s club until something happened.
But there had been one thing. He still had nothing to indicate Black Light housed any operation besides the slightly seedy bar and dance club that one could see walking through the front door. Damianos, for all Berenger had been able to notice, was an entirely pleasant man and hardworking business-owner, who even sometimes took to the bar or the door himself to give his employees a night off. If there was more than show planning going on when he and Laurent, and sometimes the others too, retreated behind the closed door of the upstairs office, Berenger had yet to uncover it. But. There had been one thing.
The biggest development so far had come several days earlier. For some time, Lazar’s nebulous investigative enquiries that Berenger had hired him for hadn’t revealed much, beyond that all three supposed victims did indeed seem solidly missing from the living world. But he had eventually hit on a former colleague of Radel Carre's who vaguely recalled seeing someone approach the man not too long before his disappearance. Someone whom he’d described as “fancy". When asked what this person looked like, he hadn’t been able to remember much beyond a dark hooded jacket and average to tall height, probably male judging by the build but even that couldn’t be certain. Though he did elaborate that he’d bumped past this person on their way out, and noticed that they’d smelt “like a bar, but not some cheap dive, like a real pricey place that big wigs go.”
Berenger had organised to question the man himself, posing as an associate of Lazar’s. To his disappointment, he managed to get no further useful description about their most solid potential lead yet. The encounter had been too brief, the memory now too murky. But he did bring along one of the expensive Akielon cigars given out at Black Light. It was, indeed, the smell coming off Carre’s visitor that his witness had described as “fancy.” The same smell that clung to Berenger’s clothes every night he stepped out from the club’s door.
It was nothing resembling the kind of sure proof Chief Audin wanted—the vagueness of the conclusion aside, the club was in the same area as Carre’s workplace, and that he might have had coincidental contact with someone from it was hardly an impossible proposition. But coincidences holding up as part of an official murder charge were one thing. Coincidences that Berenger could not ignore were another.
It was not, most likely, Damianos himself leaving the corpses behind. But someone at his club who was doing his dirty work? Maybe one of his security men, Berenger had seen them helping themselves to the complimentary cigars in the way the rest of the staff didn’t, aside from the performers sometimes smoking one or two with a client at the tables. Or it could even be an independent hire who visited the club as a patron in order to get in touch with Damianos. But even so, it had left Berenger numb for a time, the confirmation that Black Light was truly involved in this case. He’d almost started to hope he’d been wrong about it.
He still didn’t know how much Ancel and the other staff knew about Damianos’s family and their business. And even if they did, perhaps they didn’t care. To them it could be still just a Dockland club, still an honest place to work, no matter the family name of the man who owned it. Until now.
Berenger thought, sometimes, about what he might say to Ancel when this ended. Pictured it more on the days his new life wasn’t feeling so steady, when the weight of his every little falsehood about who he was pressed a bit more heavily on his chest. He imagined whispering the truth to Ancel one day, maybe pressed into his hair to gentle the blow as much as he could, the truth of the club and the truth of what was to come. Imagined telling Ancel that it was alright, that Berenger could protect him when they arrested Damianos. That maybe, after it was all over, they could work out, do—something.
Or maybe they wouldn’t. Because maybe Ancel wouldn’t hear him any further, once he heard the truth. Maybe.
It had been five weeks since the Tallow Man’s last victim. That meant another one was due, possibly. There was nothing to say the killer had to work on a schedule. Perhaps it would be longer before another opportunity presented itself to him—or it was also possible this was already the end, and he’d never kill again. Whichever it was, it felt like the world around Berenger was holding its breath. Taking a pause, slipping in just a little pebble of stillness between moments so that, for now, he could have this. With Ancel. But it wouldn’t last forever.
It might well, however, last for today. And there was no way to get through to the other side of limbo except to keep walking.
Pushing himself up from the table, Berenger shook himself out of his thoughts. He cleaned up the dishes from breakfast, before shucking the bathrobe and leaving it on the dresser by the bed. It was Ancel’s bathrobe. It fit him fairly well, what with Ancel’s height and the fact that he was slim but not too small about the shoulders. But even so, the bank probably wouldn’t appreciate Berenger paying a visit wearing only that.
He dressed in yesterday’s clothes, the process of which involved ducking under the table to pick up his shirt from where it had been tossed the previous night. He also moved his book to the dresser, not taking it with him. Finally, he did up his shoes, and let Ancel’s front door shut and lock behind him. He didn’t have a busy afternoon planned. Just a trip to the bank before they closed, which he’d have to hurry a little to make since they only opened a half-day on Astreday. There was another week of Lazar’s retaining fee to be withdrawn from his expense account and delivered to their drop-off place.
The bank was a short bus ride away, the drop-off a slightly long but comfortable walk. Both trips he managed without complication, though he kept his usual eye out for anyone in his vicinity who might possibly recognise him. Not that it would be particularly incriminating for him to be seen around Dockland and its immediate surrounds. It all fit, could fall in place with the man that he was now. The man who spent days in a Dockland job and most nights tucked up in the small apartment of his lover. The man who could have a lover who titillated a crowd with his beauty and his body at night and woke up in the morning with pillow creases on his face and his hair looking like a bird’s nest.
After dropping off the money in the mailbox of a tucked-away Patran restaurant, and taking a more thorough stock of his surroundings, Berenger headed home. His own home. His apartment smelt slightly musty as he let himself inside, and there was a fine layer of dust on the side table that he passed on his way to the telephone. The first thing he did was telephone his answering service, the one he’d set up because he was here so infrequently. They had no missed calls to report today. He hadn't even been left a callback request from his chief, for another conversation that would certainly merely be a demand for progress to match all the money coming out of the expense account. Even as the man still refused to change track on their method of pursuit of this case.
Berenger exercised, then headed for his bathroom to take a shower. His shower was a touch bigger than the one in Ancel’s apartment, though not enough to make much of a difference in his opinion. Maybe only if they both got in together. When he'd emerged and dressed himself in a clean set of clothes, he cast a brief look around his apartment.
There wasn’t much for him to do here, not after he’d given up on rereading the case notes once he’d realised he had them memorised. He wrote up new notes periodically on what he was learning on the running of Black Light, but there was little enough information coming there that he didn’t do it every day. He settled for making himself some tea, not coffee since he had enough of that at Ancel’s place these days, and drank it by the window over the newspaper he’d picked up on his way around town. That habit he hadn’t broken. There was, these days, sometimes an article on a topic other than the Tallow Man making the front pages.
He set off back for Dockland in the early evening, after half-heartedly wetting some tissue and wiping down a couple of the dusty surfaces. As the sun gradually turned deeper orange on the horizon, he decided to ride the bus an extra stop into the Akielon district. There, he headed for a roadside food stand that Ancel had introduced him to, which already had a not insubstantial line before it. He waited it out and purchased two lamb and salad wraps from the elderly Akielon woman with grey hair and a motherly smile, before beginning his walk back over to Black Light. Ancel would have spent the afternoon running tonight’s big performance. He usually ate late, since he didn’t have time to go for dinner before the club opened, but he’d appreciate something to tide him over before showtime.
It had become a familiar routine, letting himself in through the employees door. He could make out the faint strains of Kallias’s easy piano tune through the muffling of the backstage corridors. The club had opened, though only just. The performers wouldn’t be coming out for a little while yet, but they’d be in their rooms getting ready.
“Hey,” he called as he rapped twice quickly on Ancel’s door, then turned the knob to crack it open. “I hope I caught you before you started your makeup.”
Ancel turned from his position by the clothes rack, making a motion to enter, followed by a sound of excitement when he spied the wraps Berenger was holding. He had not, indeed, begun putting on his makeup. He also wasn’t wearing any pants. At all.
“You’re wonderful,” he said sincerely, as Berenger stepped inside and shut the door behind him. He crossed the distance to wrap both arms around Berenger and kissing him firmly on the lips.
Berenger slid one of his own arms around Ancel’s waist, the other groping blindly for the dressing table so he could set their food down. He’d just managed it when Ancle shifted his balance, pressing their bodies even closer together as he deepened the kiss. Berenger let out a small groan into his open mouth.
“Don’t you,” he managed to get out, only half pronounced around Ancel’s lips, “want to eat?”
“Mmmm.” Ancel shifted again, pressing a certain already conveniently uncovered part of his body against Berenger’s clothed hip. “I have time.”
He made another, very pleased sound in his throat when Berenger pulled away just far enough to drop to his knees.
The dressing rooms were, as it happened, quite adequately sound proof. They also had locks that were rather effective should Ancel choose to use them.
Ancel roused quickly under his tongue, rocking the dressing table when he threw out an arm to steady himself and had it collide with the mirror. Berenger wasn’t as expertly skilled at this as Ancel was, but he applied all the knowledge he’d gained in the last weeks about his lover’s body, and what he liked. What drew those lovely, quiet gasps that he loved so much to hear, whether above his head or against his ear. And also drew, finally, a low shaky moan, accompanied by fingers tensing involuntarily in his hair, lean thighs shaking under his palms, and a bitter spill into his mouth.
He’d barely finished swallowing before Ancel was dragging him up, pulling him in for one long sucking kiss before unceremoniously pushing him back onto the couch to return the favour. Not that Berenger had any real complaint against that.
Afterwards, and after they’d also finished eating the slightly lukewarm wraps, Berenger rebuttoned his clothes and left Ancel to finish getting ready. He unlocked the door and opened it with slight trepidation, relaxing again when he found the corridor empty outside. He pulled it shut behind him. He made his way back outside to re-enter the club through the front door, since he avoided using the employees’ entrances onto the floor whilst the club was open. Once had been enough to get a couple of words of hearsay spreading around the regulars, and Ancel’s antics with the forlorn ex-lover story hadn’t done anything to lessen the uncertainty and speculation.
With a smile at Jord in greeting, Berenger ordered just a water tonight before finding himself a good seat. It was the weekend, after all. And the shows were just as good as everyone said. It was far from Berenger’s first time seeing them anymore, and yet still he was swept up immediately when the lights dimmed, the piano melody turning into something darker, and a single spotlight flaring on. It was Laurent who stepped out first to sing, a slow ballad number with brilliant highs and passionate lows. It left every conversation hushed around the room, but Berenger knew it to be only the start.
Then the bulbs behind the stage flashed on, and a steady thrum of anticipation began to creep in under his skin.
They did several numbers each show, sometimes including a solo by one performer but more often mixing the talents of multiple. Not the same show every night either, but cycling through their known repertoire in different combinations. And tonight, next up was Ancel slinking out in white boots and a plain white tunic that more resembled something that Erasmus would usually wear. The mood of the music stayed slow, turning into a song of longing. And to the rhythm of both the piano and Laurent’s voice, Ancel began to dance.
He started with a routine on the floor, with leaps and arches of his body across the open space of the stage. The hem of the tunic fluttered around his thighs, its colour shining bright under the spotlights. Finally, after a time, he threw himself to his knees at the centre. He raised one reaching hand, then two, then slumped. Sliding sideways, rolling over to lie on his back.
For several moments he was still. The piano struck a note. The words changed. Now, they turned seductive.
Slowly, Ancel drew one hand from his side up along his body, catching the hem of his tunic on the way. The crowd began to cheer and whistle as he began to tug it upward, until he had to roll back over onto his knees in order to slip it off completely. The cheers grew loud enough they almost drowned out the music as he stood and headed for the pole in only a pair of smooth, glossy white briefs. They were tight enough they particularly accentuated the bulge at their front.
Even with all the lights, all the music, the other performers who were all very good at what they did. Berenger’s favourite part of the show would still always be this. When Ancel spun himself around as effortlessly as if his body were a twirling trail of lace attached to the pole, transforming his own form into a work of art. Defying gravity.
This number ended on a long, high note from Laurent, rich and almost operatic in his smooth voice, with a dash of vibrato. To match it, Ancel shimmied his way to the top of the pole in a graceful spinning climb, close enough to touch the roof if he reached out. Then in a single motion he swung his hips around to the front of the pole, bent a leg to hook the knee in front, tucked the other ankle behind. Both his hands let go, one hugging the pole to his shoulder and the other arcing outward in a long, slow sweep until he stilled. He held himself there as the pole continued to spin, head thrown back, body frozen in its elegant pose above the stage as the last strains of the singer’s melody rang through the club.
Ancel broke from the position when applause roared from the crowd, grabbing the pole again in one hand and sliding downward until his heels hit the floor. Then he paused again, head bowed, waiting out the noise of the audience until it died back down. With barely a moment following the last trailing clap, a key struck once more. And they were straight into the next number.
Berenger watched the rest of his show from his table, nursing his glass of plain water as the ice cubes in it slowly melted and the condensation slid down the sides to soak into the bare wood of the tabletop. Erasmus came out to join Laurent in a duet, also in accompaniment to Ancel’s dance. Then he crossed to take over the piano as Kallias moved into position beside Ancel. When the last word of the last song rang out, and all four of them gathered at the front of the stage to take their bows, Berenger clapped as loudly as everyone else around him.
He hung around the floor a little longer after it was over, after the bright lights flickered off and the performers who’d shone almost as brightly under them had retreated backstage, temporarily. All of them always came out to mingle with the patrons after the big shows, even Laurent who made rounds of the floor less often than the others. During these times, Ancel sometimes sat with Berenger when he wanted a break, curling up on his lap and occasionally stealing the tiniest sips of his drink. But usually Berenger left him to it.
“Does it,” Ancel had begun one day, as they’d been walking home after closing. He didn’t sound tentative exactly, he rarely did anything tentatively. But the firmness of his voice was slightly subdued. “Does it make you jealous, seeing me with the other men in the club?”
Berenger had reached out, and laced their fingers together. “Why?” he’d replied, mildly. “They don’t get nearly as much of you as I do.”
Ancel had made a small sound at that, a pleasant one. He said, “Does it make you excited then? Knowing that you get to have what so many others want?”
Berenger frowned slightly and gave a shrug of one shoulder. “I just want you,” he replied finally after a pause. “Never mind anyone else.”
Tonight, he moved to the bar first to chat on and off with Jord between customers. A few regulars greeted him too, here and there. Some who recognised him still asked after his supposed brother's friend, but most had already forgotten his initial round of questioning. Especially in favour of speculating, as the ones here frequently had seen and heard enough to do, about what may or may not be going on between him and Ancel. Berenger always kept his response to those insinuations vague. Subtly fan the flames of gossip, Ancel had instructed him one evening with a smirk in his voice, whilst maintaining an air of mystery. It was good for his image, said Ancel.
After a while, Berenger made his way back outside and took his circular route backstage again. He looped around to sit in the backroom with Orlant and Aktis, the security man on inside duty tonight. Joining them in a game of cards, and periodically deflecting Orlant’s lewd questions, he kept company with them for the rest of the night. They were good company, even if they still did sometimes call him ‘Berry’. Berenger didn’t have any friends, really. He had colleagues—some of whom he could pleasantly spend time with—and acquaintances—some of whom weren’t altogether bad people. He didn’t have people to while away an evening with, between drinks and games and pointed personal comments. Not before this man that he was now.
The performers trickled back in from the floor eventually, one by one. Berenger watched Erasmus pass them first, with a few words of good evening and a few more words exchanged in Akielon with Aktis. And then Laurent, with a cool nod in Berenger’s direction. He still hadn’t warmed up to Berenger as much as the others, although he was starting to soften. Then, finally, it was Ancel. Slipping his way into the backroom in the tunic from his first number, that he’d put back on probably to the disappointment of many.
“Hey,” he said, stepping close, smile on his mouth and his words low. “Watch the show?”
“Of course,” Berenger replied. “You were beautiful.”
“Of course.” Ancel grinned wider.
His white-painted lips and silver-shadowed eyes were as flawless as always. Berenger had asked him, one time, how he stopped his lipstick from rubbing off. He'd laughed and explained about the good quality setting powder that they invested in. And then proceeded to demonstrate that his lipstick would, however, still come off when met with truly excessive application of his mouth. Berenger had showered at Ancel's that night.
Ancel spoke again, nodding toward the cards in front of them. “Good game? Who won?”
“Oh.” Berenger chuckled, dropping the few cards he was still holding face up onto the table. “We stopped playing a while ago. Orlant was telling me about the show you’re putting together where you do a number with twirling sticks.”
“Oh, that.” Ancel rolled his eyes, playfully. “I keep telling them, there’s no drama when they’re not on fire.”
“And I keep telling you—” Orlant interjected.
“No, Orlant, orange lights do not look just as good!”
There was laughter in Ancel’s voice, bright and free. He shook his head in an exaggerated motion, hair swishing around his shoulders, as Orlant made scoffing noises from across the table. Then, one white-booted heel scraped against the floorboards as he spun, turning away from the three seated men and toward the other door.
“Come on," he said over his shoulder. "Let’s go home.”
There was another scrape, louder, as Berenger pushed back his chair from the table to stand. He ignored Orlant’s comment about putting that grip strength to better use, though not without a small twitch of his lips that was something like agreement. "Good night,” he called over his own shoulder as he followed Ancel out of the room. Good night to another day of this life of his.
He went home.
The plot given here for the Conquest of Arsaces comes from a brainstorming session I had for a storyline with bed-of-white-flowers. Because the two of us had to live up to our tumblr names. The first passage quoted is of course from canon, the second is written by me.
Ancel's routine finishes with a spinning climb, which is a normal Climb where you kick yourself into a spin on a spinning pole as you leave the floor. His last pose, held at the top of the pole, is a Hood Ornament. Also available demonstrated by me ;)
Featuring the aforementioned boots of mine that are the same as Ancel's. My hair colour is a bonus :P
I have also compiled a visual glossary masterpost of all pole moves in the story on tumblr here, along with some bonus pics.
Chapter by Entity_Sylvir
Oops, chapter count has gone up! I'd suspected that could happen, but alas it has been confirmed.
He received the message from his answering service three days later, coming home with a shirt even more rumpled than usual and a small stain of lipstick on one side of his trouser fly.
He telephoned back immediately on the number whose call he'd missed, which involved giving the international redirect instructions to Patras. A week earlier, he'd received a recommendation from a professional contact for a forensic lab in Bazal which specialised in arson investigation. He’d spoken to his chief, spoken to evidence, gotten in contact with the lab, and managed to organise for samples to be express delivered over.
Berenger used a few words of his rudimentary Patran when the line was picked up, and got himself passed onto the Veretian speaker who’d been the one to telephone him. He apologised for missing the previous call.
“Just have some preliminary results for you, Detective,” said the crisp but slightly cracking voice of the lab technician. “Something interesting.”
Berenger’s pulse skipped, and he found the fingers of his free hand drumming against the vertical surface of the wall behind him. “Interesting?”
“Might be something useful for the investigation. We’re still narrowing down the specifics, but we believe we’ve identified the type of accelerant used to start the fires. Human bodies don’t burn that thoroughly by themselves.” The man spoke with the clinical tone of a professional in a difficult field.
Berenger’s fingers drummed slightly harder. “And?”
“We’ve verified it was the same chemical at all five scenes. We’d always expected that of course, given the similarity of the burn patterns, but good to confirm. The interesting thing is that it isn’t the usual suspects. Not petroleum or alcohol or turpentine, the most easily available flammable liquids. It looks to be a form of lamp oil.”
The drumming stopped, abruptly, as Berenger’s hand froze. “Lamp oil,” he repeated, pronouncing the words slightly too quickly, brain racing faster than his mouth. “You mean, the actual oil used in oil lamps today?”
“Well like I said, we’re still narrowing down the specifics of the chemical composition. But yes, it’s looking like that.”
Damianos’s office. Apparently, his entire apartment. The lamps on the walls.
The technician was still speaking. “Of course, we will try to identify the exact form, maybe even an exact product line that you’d be able to trace—”
Berenger interrupted, “What if I sent you a sample of oil to match. Would you be able to tell me if it’s the same one as the accelerant used at the crime scenes?”
There was a pause down the line, followed by a barely audible, “Ah,” of understanding from the technician as he picked up on Berenger’s tone. He replied, “Yes, we can do that. Do you have the sample already?”
“No. But I can get one to you."
“Excellent. Then we’ll call again when we have further details on our findings, and you can let us know when the other sample is on its way.”
“Yes.” The word came out clipped, a little harsher than Berenger had intended. He softened his voice for the next words. “Thank you. I’ll talk to you soon.”
They hung up.
Berenger took the few steps to his window seat after he dropped the receiver back into its resting place. He sat heavily, back hunched, elbows on his knees. His heart was beating fast, audible in his ears in the silence of the apartment.
This could be it. He tried to chide himself for getting ahead of things, for counting his evidence before it was bagged, but. This could be it. Something concrete to link Damianos to the Tallow Man. Berenger still didn’t think it was him personally committing the murders, but with the organised crime connection of the victims he surely must be involved. And even if he was the orders behind them and not the hand delivering the blow, some would consider that as good as the same thing. His chief was probably one of them. They might even be able to win the case.
And as for who it was delivering the blow—an answer came to him in a click of thoughts flipping over in his head. The comely blond lover, who lived in the same apartment. Whom Berenger had seen helping Jord move crates in the cellar, with hidden strength in his frame that was pretty by design but not dainty. Whose sharp blue gaze was always keen with shrewd intelligence. Who’d been wary—maybe suspicious—of Berenger hanging around the club. Who Berenger already knew ran the club alongside Damianos, and maybe ran other things for him too.
But no, he really was getting ahead of himself there. There was no fair reason to pin this suspicion on the singer, beyond that flash of Berenger’s detective instinct. Maybe they would find something, though. After this.
Berenger sat in his hunched position long enough for his back to become stiff. Finally he pushed up from his chair and stepped his way heavily into his bedroom, dropping himself onto the mattress, stretching out without the strength to continue remaining upright as he reviewed his beginnings of a plan. His pillow and his mattress both were softer than Ancel’s. He’d been coming to the conclusion that Ancel’s were more comfortable.
The entrance to the upstairs through the club’s backstage was what functioned as the apartment’s front door, locked with keys held by Damianos and Laurent. The door to the office at the top of the stairs by the stage wasn’t usually kept locked, but the door between it and the rest of the apartment was—when neither of them were occupying the office, anyway. Berenger had been as far as the office on a handful of occasions. He’d never seen deeper into the apartment aside from brief glimpses through those two doorways, which hadn’t revealed much beyond the outlines of corridors with more lamps on the walls. He had no idea of its layout or where Damianos might keep the fuel for lighting. He'd noted the apartment as a possible candidate to be searched in a raid, if he could find cause for one, but for the time being he didn’t need to get inside. From what he’d seen, the lamps were the kind with simple fuel caps for refilling. If he could just get into Damianos’s office, it wouldn’t take long to unscrew a cap and dip some blotting paper down into the sitting oil for a sample.
The telephone rang when Berenger was still lying there, his hands tucked behind his head. Forcing his limbs to move again, he strode over and answered with a short, “Hello.”
It was Chief Audin. Asking for progress, of course. Thankfully, and with a lurch in his chest, Berenger could give it.
“I don’t have it yet,” he reported, “but I think I’m getting something solid on Vasilias.” He added after a brief hesitation, “And possibly an accomplice.”
His chief’s voice, after two weeks of carefully muted frustration, broke into something richer. “Good work, Detective. Soon?”
“Yes.” Berenger swallowed. “Very soon, I hope.”
There was a whooshing rattle down the line, like a sigh into the telephone mouthpiece. A satisfied one. “I look forward to seeing your results then,” Chief Audin said crisply. “And reading your report.”
The click of the line disconnecting was loud in Berenger’s ear. The conversation had been short enough that the plastic of the earpiece was still cool under his fingers. He took a slightly long time setting the telephone back down on its receiver, longer than after his previous call.
It was almost over, maybe.
It could be.
- - -
Berenger arrived at Black Light shortly before opening. He was in that window of time in which the stage and floor should have been cleared, the security men in their positions and the performers in their dressing rooms getting ready. With any luck Jord might even be down in the cellar too, leaving the main room empty.
Ancel wasn’t one of the performers on tonight. He’d been in earlier to practice though, and usually stayed back until opening. He spent a lot of time at the club even when not performing or practicing, working on costumes or new acts or other organisational matters—if he wasn’t off the premises running club-related errands, as he had been on a couple of occasions when Berenger had dropped by. With any more luck he’d be out on one of those today, or else in his room getting changed to leave, if he hadn’t left already.
Berenger cracked the side door and lingered a moment before pushing it fully open. He took the time to listen, straining to make out any footsteps or voices that indicated there was someone currently out in the backstage corridors. When nothing apparent was audible, he entered with a touch of cautiousness to his movement.
The corridors were indeed empty. All the dressing room doors were shut too as he passed them, casual but a little lighter than usual on his feet. Lydos, the other of the two Akielon security men, was already sitting in the room behind the bar with his booted legs propped lazily up on a table. But he only flashed Berenger a smile on his way through, already used to seeing him coming and going. Jord was, unfortunately, at the bar and not in the cellar, although that didn’t have to be a problem either.
“Hey,” Berenger said as he let the bar door fall shut behind him. “Ancel’s got some new costume samples up in the office, hasn’t he?”
Jord shrugged from where he was focused on lining up a row of clean glasses. “Think so?” He didn’t even look over as Berenger crossed the floor for the staircase.
Despite his years of experience in this job, his heart was fast as he ascended. He was very aware of a slight prickle of sweat on the back of his neck, a touch of dampness underneath the well-worn collar of his jacket. The creak of the stairs under his scuffed shoes seemed over-loud in the silence of the empty club, never mind that his presence here was no secret. He knocked quickly first in case anyone else was upstairs, got no reply. He turned the knob and let the door swing open.
The lamps were unlit, the room still illuminated by the fading light coming through one side window. There were still enough rays of yellow-orange sun to sparkle off the varied collections of shiny ribbon, lace, and multi-coloured sequins peaking out from amongst the pile of Ancel’s samples. They had been dumped haphazardly across the desk, half spilling off the side, suggesting Damianos must have been the last person to use the room. Laurent would have tidied the desk after himself.
Berenger paused for just a fraction of a second, thinking, before he decided to head first for the desk. Ancel had showed him the samples a few days ago, talking animatedly through his different ideas for styles and colour schemes and combinations, excitement enlivening his voice. Berenger rummaged quickly through the pile until he fetched out a green and gold crop shirt and shorts, laying them over the crook of one elbow. Then he headed for the closest light fixture.
They did indeed look very old. Historical relics as Ancel had said, although ones that looked to have been well-polished relatively recently. Berenger lifted a hand to run a finger carefully around the screw cap of cool tarnished metal that protruded from the oil reservoir at the base. For a second, he forgot to keep breathing. He took a hold of the cap to turn as his other hand moved toward the wad of blotting paper in his pocket. He'd bought it from a card shop on the way, enough sheets that he'd be able to tuck the used one back inside the clean ones.
Behind him, there was the click of a turning door knob.
Despite his training, despite the fact he’d thought through a plan for if this moment occurred and had gone over it in his head three times on the way here, instinct hit Berenger first. He froze. Just for a bare moment, before his head remembered to tell his body to relax. Remain unphased, don’t look guilty. React and turn casually to the noise. As he did so, he registered that it had been the door further into the apartment that had opened and not the one he’d come through.
“Berenger?” said Ancel, surprise in his voice. “I thought you were coming straight to my place after work?”
At the angle they were at, Berenger’s body should have blocked the view of his hand. That left him safe to simply continue trailing his fingers along the side of the light fixture, as if in offhand inspection. Then he pulled back, not quickly, not snatching his hand away like he'd been caught stealing from the money jar.
“They let us out early,” he replied, in the exact same tone as he’d rehearsed in his head. “Thought I’d drop by.” He shook himself slightly, as if coming back to a point he’d forgotten. “I wanted to see one of your samples again because I think I had an idea—” He shifted the ensemble draped over his elbow. “—just, I just noticed the lights. They really are old. When you said this was a historical building, it’s really been taken care of.”
Ancel blinked, nonplussed, just for a beat. Then the surprise and confusion melted from his face, as he smiled. Berenger felt his heart unclench.
“Yeah, it is. You like old buildings?”
“I do.” That was true, at least. “It’s my favourite part of Dockland, how many there are around here.”
Ancel let out a small huff of amusement. “Not so great when it’s apartment buildings,” he said wryly. “Most places aren’t as well kept as Damen’s, and trust me there’s nothing nice about pipes and wires that don’t work right. And no heating in winter.”
Berenger cocked his head, and stepped away. Leaving the lamp behind. He said with a raised eyebrow, “Your building isn’t old.”
“Not the one I have now.” Unpainted but still pink lips quirked. “But I haven’t always lived in such glamorous luxury.”
Berenger chuckled, letting himself relax further. "I like your apartment." That much was also true. Glamorous luxury it might not be, but it was cosy and warm and had everything a man needed. Or two men, even. It was definitely one of the nicer kinds of places that could be found in Dockland, and of course the company couldn't be beaten.
“Anyway,” Ancel said, brows drawing slightly closer together as his gaze moved down to Berenger’s elbow. “Why did you want my sample?”
“Oh.” Berenger cast his own gaze downward like he was remembering himself. “Right. I was just thinking.” He looked back up, expression brightening. “You were talking about wanting a sash to go with this green outfit, and last night Laurent wore that purple belt. I was thinking about it during work today, what if you could match that with this? Because you were telling me about opposite colours and how you can put together contrasting combinations—”
Ancel’s expression had bloomed into surprise again, but this time pleasantly so. His smile warmed as he broke in, “You think about my costume designs during work?”
It wedged something tight in Berenger’s throat, the falsehood of that in the wake of how pleased Ancel appeared. Pleased at the idea of Berenger not only listening and paying attention to this aspect of his work, but also pondering and brainstorming his own contribution whilst suffering the tedium of unpacking boxes in a warehouse line. Berenger tried to deflect, usually, around questions he couldn’t truthfully answer, instead of lying. Even little ones like this.
“I mean,” he said, hunching his shoulders slightly, dropping his gaze down to the floor. “Obviously I don’t know as much as you, it was just a little thought.”
“I like it.” Ancel’s tone was soft. So was the look in his eyes, when Berenger met them again.
He closed the distance between them, reaching out and picking the green ensemble up from Berenger’s arm. He shook both pieces out to hold before him, casting over them a long, appraising look. Then he gave a small decisive nod.
“I’ll ask for Laurent’s belt next time we go over costumes so we can try it,” he said.
Berenger’s smile at that hadn’t been part of his mental rehearsal.
Ancel folded the shirt and shorts with a few deft twists of his hands, perhaps unnecessarily since he dropped them straight back down after onto the messy pile of pants and shawls and tunics. Then he reached his hand over to clasp Berenger’s, lacing their fingers together.
“Let’s get back?” he said. “It’s almost opening time.”
Berenger leant forward to brush a quick peck over Ancel’s lips. He replied, “Sure.”
His evidence would have to wait until tomorrow. It could.
They prepared their own dinner, back at Ancel’s apartment. A simple but tasty stew that Ancel did the bulk of the cooking for whilst ordering Berenger around his small kitchenette to chop the ham and vegetables. They ate it across from each other at the table, over a shared hunk of bread that they both took turns ripping pieces from, as Ancel chattered on about a funny article he’d seen that day in the paper Jord had brought to work. Berenger hoped he wasn’t being too noticeably quieter than usual.
It was nice, hearing Ancel talk. He always had something interesting to say, could put a dry commentary onto sometimes the most mundane things of his life that would make Berenger laugh. And he appreciated being listened to, being questioned, whilst Berenger gave vague non-descript replies to a number of unanswerable questions about himself. He was an easy kind of person to be with, when one was pretending to be someone else. Could make it too easy, perhaps, for one to forget they were pretending to be someone else.
After dinner, Ancel headed into the bathroom to shower. Berenger made his way into the half of the room that constituted the sleeping area, sitting down on the edge of the bed to untie and slip off his shoes as the sound of slightly irregular pattering water begin to filter through the wall. He stood again to take off his jacket then, after a slight hesitation, went ahead and removed the rest of his clothes too. It was only expedient.
Slipping nude under the covers, he reached over to the low side table where The Conquest Of Arsaces was still lying half-read. But after another hesitation—in which he assessed the current state of his mind, and the level of concentration he was capable of even toward the task of distracting himself—he bypassed it to reach a little further. Over to Ancel’s own book that was lying beside it.
The title read, in curling letters of emerald green, The Valet’s Secret. The cover around it was printed in equally lurid colours, the blurb on the back revealing it unashamedly as the most ridiculous kind of sensationalist adventure novel that sold for half a lei beside shop counters. Ancel went through them with as much dedication as he had for his late morning drama show. Berenger had kept his teasing to a minimum since he’d found out that Ancel hadn’t learnt to read as a child, and had taught himself when he got older and practiced with books like these.
Also, he’d be lying if he said he hadn’t picked up the odd title for himself, over the years, when he wasn’t quite feeling up for his poetic volumes. Maybe even more frequently than he’d like to admit.
This one was about a young aspiring actor who ran away from home in order to escape an arranged marriage to one of his father’s business partners, and ended up working as an attendant for a rich man who turned out to be an acquaintance of his father’s. And whom he had to hide his identity from, lest word get back to his father where he was. It was all rather over-dramatically entertaining, Berenger had to admit, as he left a finger tucked into the page Ancel was up to and quickly skimmed through the beginning.
He’d gotten up to the hapless narrator having a run-in with an elderly housekeeper woman—who seemed to be attempting to seduce him—when Ancel came back out of the bathroom in a towel. He snorted, not altogether quietly, when he saw Berenger’s choice of reading material.
“Got tired of the Akielon poetry?” he said with a smirk.
“Just for tonight.”
Ancel had kept his hair dry under a cap, and it spilled loose down his back now. A few strands stuck damp to the side of his neck. He took a few steps over, then let the towel slip from under his arms. He bent to give his legs a last wipe dry before tossing the towel onto the top of the dresser.
Gloriously naked, he strode over to the edge of the bed. But instead of plucking the book from Berenger’s hands and leaning down for a kiss, he pulled back the covers and ducked under Berenger’s arm. He curled up against Berenger’s side like a large ginger cat, one arm across his chest, nosing affectionately against his neck. Their legs tangled together, both of Ancel's coming to rest around one of Berenger's, trapping him between those strong muscled thighs. Not that he had any thoughts of escape.
“Read to me for a bit?” said Ancel.
Berenger looked down at him with a quiet exhale of amusement. His body rose slightly in reaction to Ancel’s closeness, the way they were bare skin to bare skin, with a touch of wetness in between in places where the towel had missed. But the press of their bodies wasn’t seductive, just sweet and lazy. And so he let it lie, as he turned the page back to where Ancel had been up to.
Shifting the book into one hand and tucking his free arm snugly around the curve of Ancel’s body, Berenger began to read. The lingering scent of Ancel’s honey-floral bath soap tickled his nose as he made this way through the next few pages, describing the scenes and relating the dialogue. He tried to inject the appropriate amount of drama into his voice as if he were an actor on the radio, calling upon some of the cool or imperious or coaxing tones that he’d had to adopt over his years on his job. His impressions of several characters made Ancel laugh.
“You’re good at this,” Ancel said after a while, with a light slap to Berenger’s chest. “You should be on stage!”
Berenger barked out a laugh of his own. “No thanks,” he said dryly. “I’ll leave that one up to you.”
He got two more pages in before he suddenly reached a paragraph that made him stutter, gaze double-taking then flicking quickly down over the rest of the section. He’d paused long enough in silence, jaw dropping slightly open, that Ancel raised his chin from where it was resting on his chest.
“I—” Berenger swallowed, which Ancel could probably feel in the shift of his throat. “I do believe this young attendant and his employer are about to make inappropriate use of the backseat of the motorcar.”
The answering cackle was bright in his ear. “Of course,” Ancel replied, mirth layering his words. “Didn’t you see it coming?”
“Er. I was reading quickly?"
Another cackle, and then the pressure of Ancel’s chin dropped back onto Berenger’s chest. "Well," he said as he snuggled closer again. “Go on.”
Warmth crept up Berenger’s face. “What?” he said, voice rising a touch higher in pitch. “This? Out loud?”
He felt Ancel’s snort as a puff of warmth against the skin of his neck, followed by the slight trembling of his body all down his side as he shook in quiet laughter. But then, after that had abated, he felt something else. The firm slide of Ancel’s hand down his chest.
“Weeell,” Ancel drew out the word, “you don’t have to.” He spoke in that so very wicked tone of his that he used to tease. “You can always demonstrate instead.”
And then, with a low throaty chuckle, he was gone. Ducking down under the covers and letting them close over his head like the falling eyelid of a wink.
Berenger couldn't help a huffing chuckle of his own, in immediate reply. It broke off into a quiet gasp as he felt a slick tongue tracing its way down his chest, his stomach, until it reached its destination. He had enough remaining mental capacity to reach over and set the book safely down on the side table as Ancel, a bobbing shape under the sheets, began to apply his mouth with a steady suction. The exquisite warm heat was promptly accompanied by a deft tongue flicking patterns over the best sensitive spots.
Berenger moaned softly, one hand fisting in the covers, toes curling against the mattress. The moans got significantly less quiet when Ancel also slipped two of his own fingers into his mouth to wet them, then trailed them downard to press inside Berenger’s body. He was, of course, relentlessly good at this too.
Berenger had wondered on occasion if he ought to feel something odd about Ancel's skill in bed, given the professional way it had been acquired—but Ancel was never self-conscious about anything from his past, just accepted any good that came out of it for what it was. And so Berenger did too. And right now, that good was the way he was inexorably coaxing the control out of Berenger's body and the sense out of his mind, gently but very precisely massaging him from the inside as he continued to suck him.
He didn’t let up as Berenger gasped and squirmed his hips, spread his legs further apart. Ancel ignored his growing responsiveness, the warning signs of his body, in favour of pushing him right over the edge. He worked Berenger until he tensed with a cry that snagged rough and breathy in his throat, spilling into that hot inviting mouth and clenching around the fingers inside him.
When he re-emerged from under the sheets, Ancel's face was slightly moistened with sweat. Berenger recalled that he had limbs in time to slide one hand into his hair, and draw him in for a biting kiss, insistent but not rough. When he pulled back it was to breathe against his lips—
“Please. I want you.”
Ancel made a hum in his throat, deep and wanting. The same as he had when Berenger had first told him he'd also like to do this the other way. His answer was to reach out in the opposite direction to the side table, toward the sill of the narrow window where sat the bottle of lubricant that they’d long since purchased.
Berenger liked having Ancel on top, whichever way they were doing it. Liked to feel long hair tickling his torso, to feel palms pressing against his chest. And to watch the pleasure flood across Ancel's face as he entered him, lightly contorting those fine features into the very picture of sensual abandon, the sight the perfect accompaniment to the raw, searingly wonderful sensation of being breached. To the feel of his lover moving inside him, taking him in sinuous rolls of his hips.
This time, he only hoped Ancel didn’t see anything too different as he watched him back. In the way Berenger clutched at his shoulders a little more tightly than usual, buried his face in his hair like he was trying too hard to breathe. Chanted Ancel's name softly again and again as he stilled and sighed, falling into his own pleasure above.
After it was over, after they’d washed and straightened out the sheets and turned out the lights, they curled back together in the same way they'd lain before. Ancel snuggled into Berenger's side, tucking himself close, chin bumping the top of this shoulder. They probably wouldn’t stay that way to sleep—it was a little warm pressed right against each other, and Ancel usually got fidgety and pulled away so that he could roll over onto his other side. But, for now, it was good.
Berenger wanted to remember this. The feel of Ancel’s body against his, the softness of his hair, the gentle puffs of his breath just below his ear. He tightened his arm where it lay curled around Ancel’s bare side.
He’d do the best for Ancel, when everything went down. Would see him through the fallout, every way he could. Even if Ancel didn’t want it.
He’d have to do something.
- - -
Berenger was home for the second call from Patras, the next afternoon. The ringing interrupted him sitting in his window seat gazing through the glass with his notebook forgotten in his lap.
“I’m sorry,” he said after the technician re-introduced himself over the line. “I haven’t gotten a hold of the sample to send yet, I’ll have it to you as soon as possible.”
“Ah, no matter,” came the reply layered with electrical crackle in his ear. “I was calling to tell you that we’ve been successful in further narrowing down the substance used as accelerant, and it’s a little different to what you—or us—were thinking.”
Berenger’s already straight back stiffened. “Different?”
“Well.” There was a pause, and a pop over the connection. “It is within the same family," the technician explained. "But it looks to be a rarer form of lamp oil, a highly purified form.”
Dark brows knit into a frown. “Purified?” Berenger echoed again, somewhat perplexed. “What does that mean?”
“It means the chemical is more refined, more stable. More clean.”
“I see.” This could be good, couldn’t it? The fact that it was something unusual. It could still be a match, and with a less common substance the evidence would be more damning. “Is it something people would still use as normal lamp fuel?”
A hum. “It could be used for that, but it would be uncommon and quite a step more expensive compared to other fuel. If,” the technician said, and there was a significance weighing down the word, “you’re imagining the perpetrator already happened to have access to this as lamp fuel, I don’t think that’s likely to be the case.”
Berenger swallowed hard. “Oh?”
“Indeed.” That word came crisply, brisk and sure. “Purified lamp oil, especially one as highly purified as this one, burns hotter and for longer, and with no smoke or odour. That would make it more effective at eradicating evidence, as seems to have been the purpose of the fires in your case. And less likely to draw attention to itself. It’s a step better than the common easily available substances usually used by arsonists, which makes it seem likely that this was an informed and intelligent choice of accelerant.”
“I see,” Berenger said again. The stiffness drained out of his body, enough for him to slump backward against his wall. Likely didn't mean certain, there was still a chance his first assumption could still be correct, but—but. Maybe he had gotten ahead of himself. He sucked in a breath through the sinking feeling in his stomach and asked, “How readily is it available?” There could still be a good line of enquiry here, if it was a substance whose sale could be tracked. If they could narrow down what kind of people would be knowledgeable about its useful properties.
Another hum, sounding thoughtful. After a beat the technician answered,“This grade of purity you wouldn't find commonly sold. But I don't believe it would be too difficult to get a hold of, within the channels that use it.”
“And who uses it?”
“Well, you see, it's actually rather unusual to see it in arson. Because of the fact that it’s usually chosen for being more difficult to ignite, and for burning so cleanly it’s a very safe fuel. It’s commonly used by fire performers.”
That sinking feeling solidified into something sharp. For a split-second, Berenger’s thoughts tripped over themselves, one part tumbling toward the shadow of a conclusion whilst the other away shied from the dark. He didn’t quite register his mouth moving even as he formed the words to repeat, “Fire performers?”
The calmly informative technician's reply was as cool and professional as always. “Fire breathers,” he stated. “And fire dancers, and the like.”
He said something else after that. Berenger didn’t hear it.
He didn’t hear the thud of the telephone receiver either as it slipped out of his numb fingers and swung on its cord to slam into the wall.
“I started off as a fire dancer, you know.”
The person leaving behind the corpses. Someone with a keen mind and a ruthlessly calculating method.
“I started off as a fire dancer, you know.”
Someone physically capable.
“I started off as a fire dancer, you know.”
Someone knowledgeable about, and with access to the accelerant. Someone involved with Black Light.
“Are you ever afraid? With everything going on right now in Dockland?”
“I can take care of myself.”
A word escaped past his lips, quiet but not a whisper. Something closer to a statement, more plea than denial into the silence of his apartment.
The silence didn’t reply.
Berenger didn’t leave his apartment that night.
He didn’t leave it the next day.
He didn't eat dinner, nor breakfast after he woke up. In fact he didn't even wake up, only got out of bed. He hadn’t slept. He was still wearing the same clothes as the day before.
He felt both like he was thinking too much, and not thinking at all. Half of his brain was spinning out, turning over and over every fact, every assumption, every possibility. The other half felt like it was wrapped in seafoam. Like it was floating, trying to float, above the sea of churning callous reality underneath.
Berenger had tried, in the long hours of the night—of course he had—to convince himself that it couldn’t be true. What he’d discovered was hardly ironclad. Black Light. Fire performer. Two connections that were only circumstantial, but which had a clear intersection. It could still prove to be a coincidence, it was possible, but—but with his years of experience probing investigations, sifting evidence, judging reasonable leaps of logic, he wasn’t capable of enough self-delusion to think that it was probable. Even if he wasn’t certain of his conclusion, he couldn’t discount the likelihood of it. The fact remained, whatever the eventuality, that the next time he faced his lover would have to be under the presumption that he was very person Berenger had been hunting.
And the fact of it was, it fit. The little pieces that he hadn't realised until now were pieces. The amount of time Ancel spent at the club, in and out of meetings and consults with Damianos. And the amount of time he spent away from it too, ostensibly on bank runs or purchase pickups, but he did them more than any other employee. Berenger had assumed Ancel was closer to the top, more involved with the running of the business—which, he supposed, was correct.
There was also his wardrobe, always casually but impeccably stylish, just a tad more expensive than everyone else’s. If Berenger had come in some other way—befriended Jord the bartender maybe, or talked himself into a job wiping tables and sweeping floors—he could have picked up on all this much. But since he didn’t, he had something else on top of it too. Ancel’s home. The private apartment with its touches of luxury, the good coffee, the comfortable and well-sized bed, the sweetly-scented soaps in the bathroom. Nothing overly extravagant, nothing that flaunted. But all sitting right on the edge of revealing its occupant as someone with greater means than a dancer scraping by providing night-time entertainment for Docklanders. It was still only a small place, but all places in Dockland were. And why would he need, or want to be anywhere else?
Why would the Tallow Man want to be anywhere else.
It was, come to think of it, the kind of place he’d expect Ancel to choose for himself even despite having the funds for more. Practical for his needs, but with its indulgences. Ancel liked his nice things, but because he truly enjoyed them and not because he—as some did—wanted to own them just to show off that he could afford them. A simple and honest appreciation of the fine details of life where they could be found.
That was, if Ancel even truly was anything like the person that Berenger had gotten to know.
But he must be, surely. Even if he was what—whatever he was. A killer. A killer in the employ of the mob. But it couldn’t be all he was, didn’t stop him from being the other things that he was too. He was still a dancer, with impeccably-trained grace and hard-won skill, be it by primary or secondary profession. He still had a keen eye for costumes, a passion for colour and style. Still enjoyed wild adventure novels and dramatic radio shows. Still liked to curl up again Berenger’s side and tuck his face against his neck when they lazed in bed.
It was as Berenger had known. The key to an undercover persona was to show a different angle to the same picture, and so there were those angles of Ancel that Berenger had seen. Even as he had missed one of them—a large one, a horrifically, destructively large one—but it was only one.
Berenger had tried too, at some other point in the black stillness of his empty bedroom, to convince himself that it had all been a lie. That he didn’t know Ancel at all, that there was nothing real there to lose. But he hadn’t quite managed it, because people could be multiple things. As Damianos was an amiable businessman who was well-liked for good reason by his employees, but also one pillar of a deadly powerful family. As Ancel could be the hand that saw five people—and who knew if there were even more besides—dead with ruthless effectiveness, and also the young man whose clear eyes lit freely with joy when his lover surprised him by dropping by with dinner. It wasn’t simple. People weren’t.
For a while after Berenger rose from his bed, the gnawing ache in his stomach was an acceptably fitting accompaniment to the ache in his head, and the other one in his chest that he was trying not to think about quite so much. But as it grew sharper with the sun that was slowly lifting on the other side of the window whose curtains he hadn’t closed, he eventually dragged himself to the kitchen. He cut himself a hunk of bread with an unwashed knife lying by his sink. It was slightly stale, already several days old. He ate half of it over his table without a plate before he managed to doze off in his seat. He’d been that level of exhaustion, both from the lack of sleep and from wrestling the jumbled cacophony of his own mind, that he hadn’t even noticed he was tired.
He was woken up by the ringing of his telephone, its sharp trilling cutting knifelike into his foggy head. Disorientation hit him first, he didn’t recall falling asleep but the sunlight pouring into the room was now tinged with orange. His eyes were crusty and his back was sore, his cheek too where he’d been lying face-down across his tabletop. He hadn’t dreamt. He didn’t felt like he’d rested either.
Craning his neck enough to lift his head, he pushed himself upright and blinked his eyelids several times open and firmly shut. He didn’t wipe at them with this hands. Across the room, the telephone continued to ring.
Maybe it was the arson lab. Maybe they were calling to tell him they’d made a mistake, that they’d gotten it all wrong. That all the evidence actually pointed somewhere else—
He wasn’t capable of enough self-delusion to truly entertain a hope like that, either.
It would most certainly be his chief, actually. Asking for another update. Specifically, an update on the evidence that Berenger had promised, the link that could close the case on Damianos, and his accomplice. And Berenger would have to tell him.
In the empty dark of the night, he’d also gone over and over again every possible eventuality, every combination of probabilities on how things could fall. The fact of circumstantial evidence was, it could go either way depending on how the police, the prosecutor, the juries pushed it. Which would be worse?—was a question he’d pondered with a flat sort of dread at both options. For it to after all be a wild coincidence, only a terrible twist of chance—but for everyone to jump on the possible connection and look no further, and put Ancel away for something he’d never done. Or, for it to all be true, and yet for the doubt to be argued well and hard enough to let him free.
It just might well be the second one, after everything. Especially if he ended up with the power of the Vasilias family at his defence. It was all too easy for Berenger to imagine, the investigation and trial fizzling out under expensive lawyers and pulled strings, Ancel strolling out of the police station or courtroom door with the sun gleaming off his hair. And Damianos strolling free with him, both of them baring cruel, cold smirks of victory in Berenger’s direction.
Unless—unless Vasilias didn’t help. Unless they went for the other option, maybe the easier option, of simply pinning a scapegoat. Letting Ancel take the fall, all of it, whilst stamping out any possible connection to the family. Unless they did that.
Either way, whichever way, only time would tell. None of that was in Berenger’s hands, all there was for him to do was his job. Report what he’d found. Let the facts take their course. That course might not always lead to justice, the system might not be perfect, but it was the best they had.
Across the room, the telephone was still ringing. Berenger still hadn’t stood up. As small and sharp as the prick of a needle, a sliver of a new possibility dawned on him. What if he didn’t report it. What if he let that evidence go, brushed it off. Let it get swept away—
No. Even as soon as the thought occurred to him, his almost empty stomach was clenching up tighter than it already was in one sharp twist of contraction. No. How could he even have considered it, considered lying to his chief, withholding evidence? This job, what it stood for, had been everything to him since he’d been eighteen years old. And besides, what would he do afterward? Go back to Black Light, pretending he didn’t know what he knew? He couldn’t keep his false life as Lou Berenger the Dockland worker forever, of course. There was no future there. There couldn’t be. So what then, would he let the investigation fall into the unsolved case files and move on, leave Ancel behind and go to his next case knowing there was—probably—a killer in the city that he’d let go? Did it really count as letting him go, when Berenger was already half-sure that any attempt to take this to trial would only be a game of manipulating favourable circumstances, by either one of the Vasilias family or a police chief browbeating for results?
Yes. Yes it did, he told himself. And told himself. He had to trust in the law. He had to make his report, and do the best he could to take this in the direction he most believed in—
—the telephone stopped ringing.
Three seconds later, Berenger began to breathe again.
No matter. So he’d missed a call, he’d call back. Soon.
He fell asleep that night in bed, still fully dressed, on top of the covers. He was too tired, as he pressed his face into the curve of his pillow, to remind himself not to think of long silky hair tickling his shoulder and neck. Not to call to mind a warm, bare body lying against his, breathing falling into sync with his own. Not to drift off with the faint anticipation of being greeted tomorrow by sparkling green eyes and a brash smile that always lit up their corner of the room, and a dry, musical voice that made him laugh more than he’d done in a while.
- - -
Berenger woke up, this time, to a knock at his door.
A small groan escaped his lips as he cracked his eyelids and levered himself up to sit on the corner of his mattress. He rubbed a hand over his face, then moved it up further to scrub through his hair. His mouth tasted like woodchips. He hadn’t eaten much more food, before going to sleep, although he’d drunk some water. It had seemed sour though it was clean from the tap.
He had no idea who would be knocking on his door on this morning. His landlord? Someone wanting a signature or a donation? Either way, he didn’t care. His back was still stiff and his head hurt no less than it had the night before. It wasn’t a true headache, not the kind caused by dehydration or alcohol or sickness, more just a pressure. Like his mind was being squeezed through a vice and forced in ribbons out the other end.
The knock came again. Loud, sharp, insistent. With another groan, Berenger pushed himself to standing. His socked feet slid slightly against his floorboards as he shuffled toward his front door. He didn’t bother checking the peephole first before opening up.
The person who greeted him on the stoop was a nondescript, older man. Blue eyes and brown hair peppered with grey, wearing a plain black suit too stock standard for Berenger to be able to tell if it was cheap or expensive—even if he did have the brain that moment to care. Another man was visible in the hallway behind him, a big bruiser of a fellow dressed in scrappier clothes, lingering back near the stairwell. If the two were here together, they made a mismatched pair.
It wasn’t Berenger’s landlord. Neither was his knocker holding a clipboard, nor any other wares. Maybe he was promoting some campaign. Berenger opened his mouth, ready to ask him politely to leave because it wasn’t a good time, when the man spoke his first crisp word.
Berenger’s mouth snapped shut. He didn’t recognise his visitor as a colleague from the station, although perhaps he could be with forensics or another group that Berenger had less frequent dealings with. Or else perhaps he was from the city. Berenger was half-heartedly aware of the state he was in, dressed in three-day-old clothes that had been slept in twice, hair probably a mess, and who even knew what his face currently looked like.
“Can I come in?”
The older man—about middle-aged, but fairly well preserved—didn’t wait for an answer before moving forward. Berenger had to step back in order to avoid being crowded. The other man near the stairwell cast them a glance, but didn’t make to approach any closer. Berenger was still too tired, too foggy, to react when the man at his door entered himself into the apartment in one confidently insistent motion, and reached out to push the door shut behind them.
He spoke again on the way past, a slight smile visible off the side of his face. “I’m glad to finally meet you, Detective.” His voice was light, and pleasant. “I’ve been hearing a lot about the good work you’ve been doing.”
Again, without waiting for an invitation, the older man strode his way across the room and pulled out a chair at the dining table. His eyes strayed over the map that lay above it as he did so, flicking between the marking pins, and his smile widened slightly. Berenger didn’t move from his position by the door.
Blinking, Berenger posed, “Are you with the mayor’s office?” And then had to resist the urge to wince at his own voice, rough and scratchy. He cleared his throat.
The corners of the man’s mouth drew back even further still. “I’m someone with an interest in the investigation of the Tallow Man,” he replied.
Berenger’s eyes narrowed, his brows furrowing in tandem. With a steelier reserve to his tone, he asked again, “Are you a reporter?” How could a reporter have found out he was the one on the case, let alone tracked down his home address? Either they had a leak at the station even worse than they’d been fearing, or else a serious breach of security.
But the man was shaking his head. “Oh, no.” His manner was relaxed, almost amiable. “Call me—” he paused the barest moment “—a friend of the department.”
Slowly, very slowly, a chill began to make its way down Berenger’s spine.
That smile was still plastered across the older man’s face. Berenger was, just now, suddenly realising that it wasn’t reaching his eyes as he continued, “I’ve been very interested indeed about what you’ve found on Vasilias and that club of his.”
And in one clear, flooding moment, the chill spread and hardened into a cold shard of ice. Berenger was not quite aware of his own breathing, nor of anything else between his feet and his frozen expression. His faculties still not all completely present as his mind tumbled solidly into one, flat conclusion.
That this smiling middle-aged man before him, whatever exactly he knew, whatever exactly he was here for—this man was Regent.
“I’d also very much like to know about this accomplice that you’ve uncovered.”
No. Not just one conclusion. Even now, even like this, he still had enough capacity to connect the dots another layer down, to carry his careening thoughts until they slammed over the next realisation. Because, he knew it with dreadfully bright clarity, there was only one place this man could have gotten that information.
A friend of the department indeed.
The cold that had burrowed into his marrow was the kind so cold it began to burn. All the difficulties and limitations of his work on this case—his chief’s too-keen acceptance of the unverified identifies of the victims, his refusal to bring in backup, his insistence on pursuing Black Light as their only line of inquiry—Berenger had put it down to budget and resource-cutting and the temptation of glory. But if—if his chief hadn’t needed to verify the victims because he already had an inside source to confirm them. If he didn’t bring in backup because he’d been instructed to keep the investigation contained. If it wasn’t him, but someone else who had a vested interested in Vasilias—
For the second time in three days, Berenger felt like the rug had been yanked with gale-level force from under his feet. But whilst the first one had contained the pain of heartbreak, it was this one which cut deeper. This one was a loyalty betrayed of so much longer, of years, of a whole lifetime even.
It wasn’t like Berenger didn’t know that it happened, that sometimes cops went bad. But he’d always held firm to the conviction that the dirty ones were the loathsome minority, the few and far between exceptions to the rule, scarce weak-willed individuals that unfortunately failed to be weeded out from a force held otherwise strong by honour and integrity. They weren’t the ones in charge. They weren’t the ones who saw to how an entire department ran. Or so he’d thought. So he’d trusted, so he’d relied on.
How long? How long had his chief been in Regent’s pocket? Was it a recent thing, or had it been like this since his promotion, his entire time in the position? Or had it started even earlier in his career? Whichever it was, it was long enough Berenger was now a part of this too. Unwittingly, unknowingly it had been, but the fact of it was—he had spent all these last weeks of this case doing the bidding of the worst crimelord Vere had ever seen.
Berenger’s voice was still scratchy. It was also oddly hollow even to his own ears as he forced himself to reply, to form these words because he had nothing else, “I don’t understand what you want.” Though it wasn’t entirely true. His visitor had said what he wanted. He wanted Ancel.
The older man shifted his seat, turned in his chair so that he was leaning sideways against the table. It was a pose that looked like it ought to be casual, although his back remained entirely straight. “I think,” he said, and his tone was much more casual than his posture, very deliberately so, “that it might be better all around if you just pass your findings onto me. I can assure you, I will take care of it.”
Berenger was certain that most of what he was feeling must be showing on his face, because he didn't know what else to show. Didn’t know what kind of response, what kind of reaction he was supposed to be having to a situation like this. Unbidden, his head was shaking, just a small tremor of movement, his lips parting, “I don’t—”
“Oh I know it will be a shame to fail to close the case,” that smooth mild voice cut straight back in. “But don’t you worry about any damage to your career. You’ll be doing a great service to me, giving me this. I will certainly be open to discussing remuneration for you in the future.” The man set a hand beside him on the tabletop, fingers resting in an arch across the spread of Berenger’s map. “Especially a promising officer like you, I do believe I envision many opportunities for further,” he paused, lips pursing, “partnerships between the two of us.”
He didn’t say it, who—what—he was. Not in words. But Berenger knew, and he must be able to see that Berenger knew. That image of the affable older gentleman never slipped, not faltering a moment from it serene pleasantness as the man made his offer. Solid, absolute.
The extent to which Berenger was lost for words reminded him a little of the first time he’d seen Ancel practice. The two of them alone in the club that night, him struck so absolutely by the flash-quick unfolding of possibility between them. But of course the pounding of his heart and the rushing in his ears spoke of something polar opposite now to what they had then, accompanied by a rising sick nausea that had nothing to do with the cramping hunger in his stomach. The man seated nonchalantly at his dining table was expecting an answer, Berenger knew that, but at that moment every potential reaction, response, reply there was for him to give felt like it was spinning dizzyingly past the edge of his reach. Never in his career had he imagined he’d be making a choice like this—never had he imagined he might not even have that choice to make.
Finally, it was his visitor who grew impatient first. Not that he showed it at all on his immutably, unrelentingly smiling face as he broke the precarious silence. “I do apologise for the abruptness of my introduction of myself to you. But, please.” He said the last word not loudly, not harshly, but with a iron-heavy weight that promised he was not making a request. “Please. Do begin by sharing this most recent development you were able to make in your investigation. And the identity of this accomplice of Vasilias’s that you’ve identified.”
In the vague, floating miasma of Berenger’s thoughts, something snagged. He blinked, inhaled, swallowed. Opened his mouth.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “That possible development I reported fell through.” The words came smoothly, easily, forming on his tongue before even his conscious intent to lie shaped in his mind. “There was a witness, a man at Radel Carre’s workplace who may have seen the victim with his killer. Someone other than Vasilias himself, I thought we could make an identification.” And now he did, finally, know what he was supposed to be showing, as he wrangled his expression into a look of regret tinged with annoyance. “But when I spoke to him again, he was useless.” He allowed, precisely, a touch of bitterness to leech into his tone. “Changed his story three times over, he was drunk off his face when he saw it if he even did see anything. He’s probably drunk off his face most of all his time. If he had anything usable at all, I couldn’t get it out of him.”
Across the apartment, the older man’s hard gaze held Berenger’s own. Several seconds passed, the press of shrewd, probing assessment almost suffocating in the air between them. Berenger kept his expression schooled, impeccably so. He could do this. He was good at this. It was his job.
Finally, after an age, the man stood. He reached both hands down to press invisible creases from the legs of his trousers. Berenger was almost surprised there was no audible crack as their gazes broke. The man said, “Very well.”
Silently, and without moving a muscle in his face, Berenger began to breathe again.
The man’s attention moved away from Berenger as he crossed the room, heading not for the front door but for the small table that held the telephone. Halfway there he began to reach one hand inside his suit jacket. Berenger stiffened, just one brief flash of instinct, but the man withdrew his hand holding only a small, bare wooden pencil. The tip was sharpened to a clean point. Berenger wondered how he didn't leave lead marks all over his shirt pocket.
Without a word, the man flipped open the pad of contacts that sat beside the telephone and neatly pencilled in a new entry. Only numbers, no name. It wasn't until after he'd flipped the pad back shut and slipped his pencil back away that he spoke. Tipping his head around once more, he brought their gazes back together.
“You will be reporting better developments soon, as they come?”
He hadn’t lowered his voice any, despite the closer distance they were now standing from each other. Berenger still hadn’t moved from that same spot behind his door. From those few paces away, he gave a small twitch of a nod. “Of course.” Then, “Shall I make the reports to—”
That entirely pleasant, entirely cold smile was back. “This number, yes.”
Another nod, just a touch deeper, longer. Berenger stated again, “Of course.”
Flat blue eyes blinked once. Then, Berenger's visitor was stepping past him, reaching for the inner knob of the front door without waiting for it to be opened for him. Berenger moved back half a pace further, widening the gap just a little more between them. His socked heel knocked against the skirting board of his apartment wall.
The ugly man outside was still there when the front door swung open again. He’d moved half the hallway closer, and his hard black eyes fixed beadily on the both of them as they came into view. When his gaze met with that of Berenger’s visitor, his chin dipped the slightest bit into a motion of acknowledgement. The older man didn’t look back, nor say any further goodbyes.
Berenger didn’t wait to see the two of them disappear into the stairwell before he heaved his door shut. Fell on it, more like, back against the hard wood. Sliding halfway to the floor before he caught himself.
It was almost too much to process—was too much to process, really, as he realised he was stumbling through that hazy in-between state where he could think over the words without truly grasping their implications. It had been too many revelations in too short a time. Too many ways in which his world had been turned upside-down, Ancel, his chief, Regent. And soon, he’d have to have an answer to all of them. Soon, he’d have to act.
A rising hot prickle threatened to erupt in his chest. Panic. At the sheer, daunting uncertainty of being at an utter loss for what to do. But no, he took a breath. A few deep breaths. And then firmly, and surely, pushed that aside. He was trained for difficult situations. The most difficult of situations. He had the proven track record of a competent strategist, a conscientious planner. He could work through this. He would.
In another few moments he didn’t have, exactly, an idea for what to do, but at least he could form an immediate next step to head toward first. He would have some food. Get some more rest. Then he would look things over, like he always did. Every choice before him may look impossibly malformed from where he was standing now, but he would take some time to think with a properly functioning brain. And go from there.
He’d stood back up straight, taken two steps toward his kitchen, when a knock sounded again. Loud and insistent, aggressive. He clenched his jaw. Stilling for a second, he took another long, deep breath, bracing himself for whatever other demand the older man had now. Then he turned back for his door and pulled it open for a second time without looking through the peephole.
And stood blinking.
After all that, after the night and day and night he had, it was this moment his mind was finally shocked into quiet. Falling into total blankness at who it was that greeted him on the other side.
“So,” said Ancel, voice cold as webbed frost. Contempt dripped from it like slush. “That’s who you work for."
Chapter by Entity_Sylvir
Ahh I am sorry to do this again, but alas this is not the end. Chapter count has gone up another time. Hopefully when you see the length of this chapter though, you'll understand why I couldn't make it to the end. ;)
From a greater distance, Ancel might have been unrecognisable. He was wearing drab, plain clothes that hid rather than flattered his trim figure, dark trousers hemming heavy and dirt-scuffed boots. His distinctive hair was tied and tucked away, hidden under a cloth cap whose brim was pulled low down his forehead. Up this close, though, Berenger could hardly fail to recognise his face. Or the glittering rage in his hard green eyes.
“What—” Berenger gaped, jaw falling dumbly slack before he could think to catch it. “How—did you—” His own tongue felt leaden in his mouth, almost protesting the motion of words as he finished, bewildered, “—did you follow me?”
Ancel’s upper lip drew upward, curling into a sneer. “No,” he replied. “I was following Govart.”
Berenger’s teeth clacked together as he forced his mouth back shut. He blinked again, too off-balance—far too off-balance—even to frown. “Who—”
“Then I saw your name on the mailbox outside.”
Planting the palm of one hand flat against the front door, Ancel pushed, sharply. The action wasn’t quite aggressive enough to be violent. But it was firm enough that Berenger, unprepared, rocked a step backward at the movement. Then, for the second time that morning, he had a visitor barging themselves without preamble into his apartment.
“Nice place you got.” Unlike the elegant older gentleman from before, Ancel swept in like a whirlwind, cheeks flushed pink and loose jacket whipping around his shoulders in the absence of his usual curtain of hair. A whirlwind that was still talking. “No wonder you never took me back—”
Having taken three steps inside, Ancel’s words broke off as suddenly as his boots thumped to a stop on the hardwood floor.
Berenger hadn’t moved since catching himself on his heel, hand still resting loosely on the doorknob, cool metal jostled half out of his grip by the door’s movement. He followed Ancel’s gaze to see that it had landed on the dining table—on the pin-marked map of Dockland littered around the edges by the papers of the investigation. Berenger’s own books of notes were unmarked on the outside, blank on the covers. His folders of casefiles from the station were not.
There was a second, stock-still between the both of them, before Ancel snapped back into action. When he spoke again, his voice had lost a little of its impassioned fury, but none of its ice. “What is this?”
With a few more wide strides, he snatched up one of the notebooks from the tabletop. The well-creased spine fell open in his hands.
“No—” Berenger said on instinct, own limbs finally also recalling how to move.
He got halfway in crossing the distance between them before Ancel lifted his gaze from the page and, almost tangibly, pinned him in place with that clear solid stare. For a moment his face, unmade-up and still partially blocked by that cap brim, was blank. But in the next, Berenger thought he spied something dart across it. Confusion. Possibly even to match Berenger’s own. However much Ancel had seen, whatever he had extrapolated, he hadn’t been expecting this.
“What is this?” he repeated, and now his voice was softer. “What are you—” His attention fell away again, trailing back toward the table. To the folders all stamped with that one repeating case number. The pitch of his last word hitched a fraction upward. “—investigating?”
Berenger saw, with a bald sort of clarity, the slow journey of Ancel’s gaze. He spied the moment it caught on the pins sticking the map, one for each of the Tallow Man’s victims, snagging on that pattern of locations and pausing. He watched, like watching a single droplet of dew inching off the edge of a leaf, as the barest subtle twitch of recognition spread across Ancel’s face.
And like that, Berenger knew. It was true.
“You,” he said. The quiet word tolled through the room like a funeral bell. “I was investigating you.”
Perceptible from across the room even under those shapeless clothes, Ancel took a breath in one steady expansion and contraction of his chest. The only sound between them was the tap of paper on wood as he let the notebook fall back onto the table. It was staggeringly loud.
When he looked back at Berenger, the fire in his eyes had died to coals. Still burning, but dark. Their gazes locked for one stock-still beat. Cards on the table, secrets in the air. This was it.
This was them.
Ancel didn’t look shocked. He didn’t look horrified, or afraid, or like his world was rocking around its axis. But for all Berenger knew, maybe he was. It was just hard to say when, in another heartbeat, that cold anger flashed once more over his fine features with such sharp intensity it eclipsed all else.
“So,” he said, disgust like granite in that single syllable, “you’re not just a snake. You’re a dirty cop.”
“No,” Berenger said again, immediately. He’d spoken too loudly. His front door was still open, there were two other apartments on this floor and it was early enough they could still be occupied. On instinct, he backtracked his own steps and pushed the door shut.
It occurred a moment later to him to wonder if that had been a miscalculation. His trained eye had vaguely noted—habitually, even at a time like this—the way Ancel was moving, the way that large jacket fell around a figure Berenger was well familiar with. Little tells, but ones seen enough over the years to snag a cop’s recognition. Ancel was, Berenger was fairly sure, wearing a sidearm. The position he was standing, holding his arms, he didn’t look like he was poised to draw. But Berenger was aware how quickly and smoothly he could move. Berenger’s own service weapon was currently lying in the bottom drawer of his small bedside cabinet, through his bedroom door that was on the other side of where Ancel stood. If he had to act, respond to something, his best bet would probably have been to make for the front door.
Into Berenger’s stilted pause, Ancel continued to fix him with that dagger-sharp glare. He didn’t interrupt, eyes narrowing in the slightest twitch as if challenging Berenger to continue. Berenger cleared his throat. It felt like scraping folded sandpaper. He took half a step away from the door, in the direction closer to Ancel.
“I’m not—I wasn’t working with him.” His tone was slightly husky, but there was a fire of his own in that pronouncement. “I never saw that man until today. He gave me a—a request, an offer, but I swear I didn’t know.”
The last word cracked. He snapped his mouth back shut. He was aware of the tint of desperation that had edged into his tone—even more aware of the fact that, of all people he needed to defend himself to, the Tallow Man wasn’t one of them—but. But the hatred in Ancel’s frosty green eyes was almost suffocating in the air between them. Hatred, Berenger was realising, that was for Regent.
Ancel’s expression was unmoving aside from the subtle tightening clench of his jaw as he took in those words. It was several long seconds before he deigned to reply, eyes narrowing further. His tone, when he spoke, was precisely non-committal. Not cruel enough to be mocking, but light enough to be as good as humouring. Say I believe you. Which I don’t. “What did he want?”
Berenger swallowed again. This time felt slightly less raw. His voice didn’t crack again as he replied for the second time, “You.”
That hard flat stare was his only reply.
Berenger took a breath, deep but sucked in quick. He closed his eyes, squeezing tight, before reopening them only slightly slower than a blink. He elaborated in an exhale, “He asked me to give you straight to him.”
“And,” Berenger echoed, and the next words came out almost wonderingly. Like he was only just realising what he’d done, and asking himself why he’d done it. Which he was. “And, I didn’t.”
As Berenger watched, watched and waited, the thinnest crack slivered its way up Ancel’s composure. His lips parted. His eyelashes fluttered. A moment later, he remembered to keep glaring. He said, simply, firmly, “What?”
“I—” The admission curled heavy on Berenger’s tongue. “We—he—already knew it was someone in Black Light, but I told him I still hadn’t found who.”
Ancel’s tongue darted out lightning fast to lick his lips. “Except, you did know.” His head tipped back a fraction, jutting out his chin. His next sentence was a statement. “You knew since two nights ago, when you stopped coming around.”
“Yes.” The word came out like a breath, the kind taken without realising.
Slowly, quite slowly, Ancel tipped his head to one side. Even without the usual fall of his long hair around it, that inquisitive arch of his neck had a familiarity which hit Berenger like a pin pricked just hard enough to draw blood. “Then why?”
“I don’t know.”
A sound in the back of Ancel’s throat was the reply to that, close to a scoff, quiet but sharp.
Berenger let his own head fall back like he’d suddenly lost the strength to keep it up. His gaze flung up to the ceiling as he let out a sigh that came out more helpless than he’d meant it, low and hard and shaky, shaped by the sheer bewildering disarray that his life had managed to become. He wasn’t angry, or scared, or aghast, or anything. Not exactly, not anymore. He just didn’t know.
“Because,” he said again, before he’d meant to say anything, and with something that was almost disbelief at himself. Sounding out the words in his own mouth, words that were no better explanation than the ones before. Except somehow they were. “Because it was you.”
When he looked back, Ancel’s own gaze was downcast. After a moment his expression pinched, seizing up in a flash of—something. Before falling resolutely back into his fixed blankness. He spoke again, after a protracted beat, without looking up.
“How can I know you’re telling the truth?”
Ancel’s tone was still very even, all control. But—maybe Berenger was imagining it, but he thought—that evenness was wearing a little thinner. A penumbra through which one could just make out the background if they squinted, and knew what they were looking for. The bright, enthusiastic, somewhat dramatic young man that Berenger had come to know, under this steely hard face that he also sometimes had to be.
And maybe he was imagining this too, but a small part of the tightness in Berenger’s chest seemed to ease. Not by conscious choice.
He answered truthfully, voice small and matter-of-fact, almost like he was talking to himself, “You can’t.”
A quiet scritching noise tapped into the silence of the apartment. It was the scrape of Ancel’s nails against the edge of the tabletop as his left hand clenched, gradually, fingers approaching a fist. He was wearing a glove on one hand, but not the other, had taken it off maybe to rap more bitingly on Berenger’s door. His nails were painted green this week. The colour matched his eyes, although that wasn’t a detail many people would notice. Not unless they’d spent a lot of time looking into his eyes.
There was only that sound for a time that seemed very, very long. The barest shift of nails on wood. It could have been the shift of mountains.
Finally, Ancel glanced back up. Moving only his eyes, so that his gaze was cast through his lashes. It was an angle that could have been alluring in other circumstances. In this one, it looked more like he barely dared to move. Even his lips scarcely parted as he stated, “You don’t work for Regent.”
It wasn’t hope, exactly, in his tone. It wasn’t anything exactly, in fact, not that Berenger could pinpoint for certain. But perhaps that was just it. Uncertainty. Maybe, even, the same uncertainty that had been chipping its way through the foundations of Berenger’s model of the world, just Ancel was better at hiding it. Only, not right now he wasn’t.
This was them.
Ancel’s chin tipped upward a fraction. At his side, his hand stilled. He stated again, “You’re a cop.”
And there it was, what Berenger had pictured saying a hundred times over finally on his tongue. The inevitability he’d tried to rehearse through every possible eventuality, but—of course, of course—he’d never imagined this one.
“You were investigating the Tallow Man.”
“And Regent found out—because?”
He had to swallow before he answered. It hurt to say. Not the pain of heartbreak, that which was so often detailed by poets in lyrically beautiful tragedy. Just the hollow ache of a boy who’d grown up with the shadow of his police chief father always trailing over the steps just in front, taking until now to learn that shadows don’t show the true face of their caster. The twinge of reaching for something deep-seatedly familiar and finding it no longer there. “My chief.”
A muscle in the side of Ancel’s face twitched, drawing up then relaxing into the corner of his mouth. It was only the smothered glimmer of an expression, yet Berenger would hazard he’d seen it. Sympathy. Ancel didn’t know, obviously, anything about this life of Berenger’s. Where it had come from, what it had meant. But perhaps he saw it on Berenger’s face. Or knew him well enough to guess.
Ancel blinked once, gaze dropping with the flutter of his light lashes before it returned. He continued, “You told him about Black Light.”
That next word, now that the first few had been said, came more easily. Maybe he shouldn’t be answering these questions, not from Ancel, not from—him. But who was going to reprimand him for it now? And what else was there even to do, now.
“But you didn’t tell him about,” the hesitation was barely audible, “me.”
It was the first time Ancel had said it out loud, even with it hanging large and known between them. Berenger’s heart hitched along with the falter in that statement.
He could have said, ‘not yet’. It wouldn’t have been a lie, exactly. It might not have been the truth either. He wasn’t too sure where the line between those two lay, anymore.
“You already asked me that.”
And he’d already failed to answer.
Ancel didn’t push. Instead, he seemed to promptly run out of questions in the face of that circular reminder. He turned away, attention breaking off and out instead through the uncurtained window, not like he was following any passing bird or falling leaf but with a suddenly distant look in his eyes. It was only a hint of an expression, again, behind those coolly controlled features, but Berenger didn’t think he was imagining the lost tint to that gaze. For another long time, no one spoke. Both of them were still, except for the just-too-quick movement of their chests. Rising and falling in tandem.
The breaking of the silence, when it came, wasn’t gentle. Ancel moved like he was flinging his own limbs from his centre, spinning a half-circle on the spot so that his back was to Berenger. The toe of his heavy leather boot knocked up against one of the legs of the table, jarring it a thumb-width across the floor with a crunching scrape. It wasn’t a violent motion, though. Even when he dropped both his palms to the wooden top a shade harder than necessary. Nothing about him seemed violent, actually. Strangely so, maybe, given what Berenger now knew about him. Sharply dangerous he was, yes, and poised just so with deadly grace—but not with brutality.
“Why haven’t you asked me anything?”
Head tipping backward, face turned away to hide his expression, the level coolness was suddenly and completely gone from Ancel’s voice. The words were thrown out there like a dam held back so long it broke free with destructive force. He hadn’t shouted, hadn’t yelled, but his tone was rough, like cracked asphalt. His next breath was loud enough Berenger could hear it from across the room.
It was a fair question. There were so many things for Berenger to ask, about the club, about Damianos, about Regent and the victims and Ancel. So many things Berenger didn’t know if he could hear the answer to.
His gaze fell to the floor as he replied, simply, “I don’t know where to start.”
Ancel laughed. The sound was unexpected, and harsh. Devoid of either joy or amusement. “Neither do I.”
And then he was spinning back around, nudging the table another grinding inch against the floorboards whilst he was at it. His eyes were bright, even brighter than usual, but after the briefest moment of connection he was looking away again. Half turning, not to the opposite wall this time but just toward the empty corner at the other side of the room, as if he couldn’t meet Berenger’s gaze.
“I just—” Ancel continued, and broke off to bite at his lip. He was still flinging words out, almost like he didn’t know what else to do with him. Answering the questions Berenger hadn’t managed to ask. “I just—I really wanted this.”
Berenger didn’t say anything. He wasn’t sure he was supposed to say anything. He let the silence stretch on, until Ancel spoke again.
“I wanted someone to go home with at night and talk to in the mornings. I didn’t—didn’t think about the fact that you were always so vague about work and never talked about your life before you'd apparently arrived in Arles because I wanted this, I wanted someone nice, someone boring, I didn't want to be suspicious, but—”
Berenger watched with a slight disconnection, close to fascination, as Ancel broke off this time with a hitch of breath that seemed to shake his throat. The contrast, the break in his careful veneer, had been acute and absolute. And maybe, just maybe, that meant something. Some thread of realisation that stirred in the back of Berenger’s spinning mind at this sight that had sprung before him—that Ancel, too, appeared to be unravelling.
“Then, you didn’t show up. I was worried, you know, but then. Then we noticed Govart skulking around the club. And I remembered the last night that you were there.”
Ancel ran a hand up his forehead, almost hitting himself with how sharply he’d brought it to his face, before tugging off his cap. He laughed again, and it was a little less hard. More helpless.
“You should have heard the chewing out I got when I admitted I’d caught you sneaking around the office.”
There was a thud as his hand came back down. The fabric of the cap crinkled in his fist. His volume dropped, almost like he was talking to himself. Like he was, maybe, berating himself for what had happened, for how this had happened. Like Berenger had been, these last few days.
“Maybe it was silly.” He stated it like a sigh. “Thinking it could last. End in anything but shambles. But I just wanted someone—something—normal.”
And then, he was done. Lips pressing together, chest shifting slightly in an intake of breath. Aside from that, he was still. A scant few shorter strands of hair escaped from his bun and drifted down past his ear. He didn’t brush them back.
Finally, as silence crept between them once more, threatening to crystallise, Berenger spoke.
“Funny.” His voice was also quiet, but not like he was talking to himself. “I wanted the same thing.”
Something normal. And this is what they’d gotten.
This was them.
A beat passed. Another. The floorboards creaked. Ancel shifted, straightening up from where he’d been half slouched against the crooked table. He tipped up his chin, and met Berenger’s eyes once more. When he did, his expression had settled. Not back into the cold, hard blankness of earlier, but into a more gentle sort of calm. His lips were parted. He took a breath, not too deep, not too harsh, before his next words.
“I’d like to ask something of you.”
Berenger’s brows made a half-hearted attempt to twitch upward, on his exhaustion-drawn face. “Ask something?”
The bob of Ancel’s pale throat was visible as he swallowed. “I’d like to ask you to trust me to do something, for a moment.”
“Trust you.” Berenger swallowed too, without thinking. He returned, flatly, “Should I?”
Ancel didn’t reply to that. He didn’t have to, when the answer was obvious. There could be no good reason to give for Berenger to trust him, as there hadn’t been for the vice versa. Berenger exhaled.
“What will you do?”
Pink lips pressed together, briefly, before falling slack. “I’m going to make a call. And have someone come, to talk to you.”
Ancel simply blinked, at that confirmation of what Berenger knew. After a beat, he said only, "The one Regent wants." His head shifted, just a brief movement, into a small shake. "It isn't me."
And then he fell back into silence, unelaborated. He was waiting. For an answer to his earlier question.
Berenger’s next exhale came like a ruptured balloon. Make a call, invite someone here. To elaborate? To explain? To make a counter-offer? Or it could be the other thing, of course—a trap. Berenger knew that. And Ancel knew that Berenger knew that. He knew exactly what he was asking.
The yet-unshaped answer felt heavy on Berenger’s tongue, the empty space hollow in his throat where a word threatened to form. He knew the angle of that boldly set jaw, the strong line of that straight back as Ancel regarded him from across the room. Had seen those lips purse and smile, snipe at co-workers, part in pleasure. Seen those long limbs sprawl in languid relaxation and move with both exquisitely lovely grace and iron-firm strength. From all his years in this city, on this job, Berenger knew that there wasn’t any one way that a criminal looked. Wasn’t any one type of person capable of doing bad things, the worst things. Wasn’t one kind of face to be wary of. But still, still—
This face he knew. And this man, whatever parts he had seen, despite the other parts that he hadn’t. He couldn’t trust him, that was a fact. That was how any reasonable evidence, or lack thereof, pointed. But—
But, nothing. He had no valid argument, no logical conclusion. He just had—everything else. The spaces in between, the gaps in the heart occupied by things that logic could never fully explain. He shouldn’t, couldn’t trust Ancel. But he wanted to.
Berenger replied, “Alright.”
Ancel’s head tipped like a taut string in his neck had been loosened, falling forward far enough that Berenger couldn’t see his mouth, whether it had softened, whether it had curved. Without looking back up, he shifted on his feet and made straight for the telephone in the corner, following again in the footsteps of the apartment’s previous morning visitor. His step was heavy enough his rubber soles squeaked against the floorboards.
Berenger stood in silence as Ancel picked up the receiver and put in the numbers that, he assumed, probably led to Black Light. He himself was still backed up one step from his closed front door, unmoved during all of this. Maybe it fit, hovering on the doorstep of his own apartment. Halfway in or out of his own life.
The telephone rang, just audible through the air the few metres between them. Rang again. Connected. On the other end, someone spoke a greeting.
Ancel replied with his own. And he did it, to Berenger’s surprise, in perfect fluid Akielon. He kept his voice low and his words quick, speaking fast enough that Berenger could only manage to pick up a few words here and there. One of them was his own name.
The conversation dragged on more than a few sentences, Ancel doing most of the talking. Reporting? Bringing his interlocutor up to speed on the developments? When it ended, the metallic chink of receiver being returned to its resting place sounded like the click of a lock. The first connection of interlocking tumblers.
Berenger didn’t ask how long they had to wait. He didn’t say anything, neither did Ancel. It seemed they were out of words. After Ancel’s hand finally fell, slowly, away from the telephone, Berenger unstuck himself from his hovering position. With a twist on the balls of his socked feel, he turned his back. Deciding, he headed for the kitchen area to cut himself some more bread.
When he re-emerged into the living area with his plate, and with the bread finally fully buttered after the most meticulous, sluggish application process he’d ever conducted on a piece of breakfast, it was to find that Ancel had taken his chair by the window. He didn’t turn his head at Berenger’s entrance, looking steadily out through the glass. He'd tugged out his hair, the ties lay beside him on the sill along with his cap. The usual smooth curtain had a slight wave to it from the tight bun.
Berenger considered turning back around, retreating to the kitchen to eat by the sink. But it was his own living room, even in the slipping bounds of his world, so he opted to take the few steps over to the table and pull out the second chair there. His plate he set down right over the map of Dockland. The edge knocked one of the pins. When he picked up his bread and began to eat, now, he felt like he tasted it more than he had the previous day. It was a nice loaf, even with the slight staleness.
By the time the knock came at the door, Berenger wasn’t sure exactly how much time had passed. He had finished eating, Ancel hadn’t moved from his seat except to lift his hand once to scratch his brow and another time to tuck a tuft of hair behind his ear. Berenger also wasn’t sure exactly what had gone through his head, in all that time. All the turning over he’d been doing of the situation earlier, examining again and again from a thousand different angles, now it had quieted. And left him with a simpler idle contemplation, the kind that could safely be cast from mind once one snapped out of that mood. It had covered something from the telephone number that he now bore in his contacts pad to the way Ancel’s bright red hair caught in the midmorning sunlight.
Ancel flicked his attention to the door with barely a twitch of his chin, making no move to stand. Berenger did, pushing up from his place at this map-adorned table that had been somewhere between Chastillon Street and Dockland’s east border. He did this time look through the peephole, in case Ancel had somehow invited the middle-aged man from Regent, or his guard, or Berenger’s chief, or some other incomprehensibly twisty trick. He hadn’t.
The hulking figure of Damianos filling the hallway outside, Berenger had been expecting. The slighter figure before him, though, less so. The blond hair was pulled back into a bun much like Ancel’s, low and practical, a touch looser and less perfectly styled than he usually wore on stage. The ice blue eyes were keen and hard as Berenger stepped back, and pulled open his door.
“Detective,” said Laurent in greeting, voice crisp and accent clipped. “I hear you’ve met my uncle.”
- - -
The man who sat at the head of Regent didn’t come from a family of old blood and connections engraved blade-deep on the landscape of Arles city. No, he’d merely been a worm in the muck who’d poked his head out a little higher than the rest, and decided he liked the view. A small-time crook who became a bigger one, a badder one. And kept going until he’d clawed his way to the top with a trail of conquered territories and broken bodies in his wake.
He did have a family—most people did. But not one who stood beside him. Maybe not one who’d seen him in a long time, or at least not one who knew the details of where his money came from. Either way, he was alone at the top. And alone was a precarious place to be, in a business like that. Surrounded by the kind of people that business demanded.
Although, once upon a time, that hadn’t always been the case. There had been, in fact, one exception, for a time. One person whom he had deigned to take under his wing, take with him to the top. Whom he’d regarded as a protege, of a sort.
All this Berenger learnt seated at his dining table across from the singer with the piercing blue eyes, as the large form of Damianos hovered quietly by the wall like a shadowy guard dog. And if something darkened on Laurent’s face as he spoke, something sharp and hard behind that expression of cool and calm which fit even better on his haughty features than it had on Ancel’s, Berenger didn’t ask. Didn’t press with any more questions as the man danced with vague words around why and how it was that he had been the one to gravitate toward his uncle in his youth, been the one taken into confidence and raised, trained into an associate. Or, at least, a lackey.
Maybe it could have been something. Maybe they could have ended up partners. Maybe Laurent could have become a steadfast clan all in himself, the first pillar toward building a line to echo Vasilias. But, he didn’t.
It had taken him some time to turn against his uncle. First to decide to do it, of course. Then to spread himself through his uncle’s people, under the guise of loyalty, and slowly begin making some of them his own. But however much time he had taken, perhaps it hadn’t been enough. For when he’d elected to cast his die, make his bid, his attempted coup hadn’t succeeded. He’d managed only to escape with a handful of his own people. Jord. Orlant.
So they’d left, Laurent and the small staunch group that followed him, into the depths of Arles’s underground. And it was in those cracks, the kind a wandering root could slip into and widen until it fractured stone, that Damianos—freshly arrived from Akielos, with no love for Vere’s so-called new Regent—was just settling in. And, well. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Laurent and Damianos, they had made an alliance.
Even if he’d had the mind to do more beyond gazing on with blank attention, Berenger wouldn’t have smirked or snickered at that wording. He knew enough of Veretian history to understand that the strongest alliances were the ones sealed between the sheets.
And so, with that alliance had come Black Light. A nice little business for Vasilias on this side of the pond, and a finger right on the pulse of Arles’s underground. No better base for Laurent to take as he’d begun, one by one, to snip the links in his uncle’s network.
“But,” Berenger cut in there in the narrative, “it wasn’t you who did the snipping.”
He said it as a statement, but once he finished shaping the words a little something twisted even tighter in his chest. This, here and now, was the last confirmation. Ancel was involved, yes, that much had been deduced, been admitted, but whether it was him and only him—
Laurent smiled, a gentle widening twitch of his lips. It wasn't a frightening smile. “Too many of my uncle’s men know me,” he replied, evenly, “or at least know of me enough to be suspicious. And besides.” A tilt of his head to flick his gaze over toward where Ancel was still sitting, quietly observing their exchange, by the window. “We each have our skill-sets. I know how to use mine. They are not the same as Ancel’s.”
So it was.
When Berenger swallowed, his throat was as dry as if he was the one doing all the talking. The thing in his chest, though, didn’t tighten further. Perhaps it just had nowhere else left to go, and relaxed in surrender. At least he knew. At least now he could ask. It was good, being able to ask. He was tired of guessing, of wondering, of supposing. Of investigating.
Across the room, Ancel’s eyes met Berenger’s own. The look on his face wasn’t apologetic, nor defiant. It was simply a greeting, an acknowledgement that he was here. He was himself. And, maybe, he looked a little tired too.
Laurent’s story went on. Berenger had been right about the whys of the manner in which the bodies had been left, that neither Laurent nor Damianos wanted open war with Regent. Especially not when the creeping fear of making their people disappear out from under their noses could be even more effective. And if anyone did end up making the connection, and marking the Tallow Man’s victims for who they truly were, then Laurent would be able to hold up the card of commanding the faceless figure that had so terrified the citizens of Arles all these months. It was all very neat, on multiple sides.
It was also an interesting feeling being right. Being right about one thing, that was. Whilst being so wrong about so many others.
“Why,” Berenger had to say, finally, pushing the words out like meat through a grinder, “are you telling me this?”
Not like he didn’t know what was coming, just that he was ready to hear it. Laurent didn’t speak with the tone of one simpering for sympathy, nor did he impose his very presence as a threat like his uncle had before him. Although Berenger did see in him something of the older man who’d stood in this room earlier that morning. Not much of family resemblance, really, but a shared sort of charisma. The kind that could draw people in and collect them, one way or another. Though whilst his uncle had an air that was both almost magnetically confident and layered with quietly pronounced menace, coercing with a smile of rot covered in honey, Laurent’s bearing was different. His demeanor was flat, imperturbable. Coolly competent and commanding, Berenger could see how the coldly beautiful young man would inspire his own inexorable loyalty.
And he would, of course, also have something to request.
Across the table, one elbow leant down over a blank area of the map, politely avoiding disturbing any of the pins, Laurent smiled again. He replied, "Like I said. The top is a very precarious place to be, in this business. The threat of betrayal can never be put down, from every side, at any sign of weakness.” Again, his smile wasn’t fake, though neither was it large. It was simply matter-of-fact, like his words. “My uncle has said it that I am dead. Has let it be known that he had no difficulties in quashing any opposition to his power. That is why he too doesn’t want the truth about the Tallow Man out, doesn’t want anyone knowing that there is someone capable of taking out his people like that.”
And so Berenger had been directed to keep it under wraps, even within the department. Of course, it all made sense.
“That is why,” Laurent continued, "he wanted you to hand me straight to him. Not to his hired muscle, not to the people he keeps to do his dirty work, him.” Here, his smile widened, just a touch. “But you didn’t.”
No, he didn’t. And there, he’d already made a choice, apparently. Not one he’d intended, but then none of this he had intended. A choice of one kingpin over another. There were no good guys, here. Only different flavours of villain.
Berenger forced through his scratchy throat, quietly, because he was tired, “What do you want from me?”
Laurent shifted his weight, leaning forward across the tabletop. The smile smoothed from his face, expression turning firm. “Tell me,” he said. “When he came to see you, did he have his bodyguard with him?”
A question, Berenger was being asked a question. For the first time in this long, dredging exchange it was him who was expected to reply. For a second it occurred to him that if he answered—if he agreed to answer, to talk to this man who he’d thought he’d known at least a little, but probably didn’t know much at all—that this was him making his choice. A conscious choice, this time. Working with the mob same as his chief.
But of course, he’d answered questions already, hadn’t he. Not from Laurent, but from Ancel. Berenger’s gaze wasn’t on the man before him, it had drifted out past to the floor. He sat with his shoulders hunched, his hands in his lap. His legs were uncrossed. Silently, he nodded.
There was a tiny creak from the second dining table chair as its occupant leant in a fraction further. “Was his bodyguard here when you talked?”
A shake of his head.
Laurent sat back, inhaling. Something gleamed in his deep blue eyes. He said, “He’s hiding this from his people, even as he’s trying to deal with it. There, we have him.” He twisted around, turning to address his next words not to Berenger but behind his shoulder, to the unspeakingly but attentively watching Damianos on the room’s other side. “We have him at a weakness.”
The floorboards squeaked under the shift of Damianos’s weight, as he took the handful of strides forward to bring himself up against the back of Laurent’s chair. In his deep, lightly accented voice he rumbled, “You think we can use this?”
Berenger watched the profile of Laurent's neck and jawline as he nodded, just once. “He’s a smart man, very smart. And very careful. But here, he’s made himself vulnerable. We have an opening.”
There was a tightening pinch between Damianos’s dark brows, not sceptical but like he was boggling slightly at his own realisation as it dawned. He said, slowly, “An opening for what?”
Behind them both, Ancel sat up too. His gaze snapped back toward them from where it had begun somewhat to wander around the room. The air of idle listlessness that he’d slipped into since letting his—friend? colleague? employer?—take over the talking, seemingly only half attentive though Berenger was sure he was following every word, sluiced off him like water. His attention was sharp and heavy as Laurent gave his reply in tones as coolly precise as ever.
“An opening to take him down.”
Ancel and Damianos seemed to breathe in unison, two sets of inhales drawn together at those words. There was a tension in the air, suddenly, not anything negative between the people present but settling over them all like the crackle of static that anticipated a storm. Berenger felt keenly like he was missing something, even though he’d heard every statement exchanged and been provided sufficient context to understand them. It wasn’t the same, though—knowing something, and living it.
It was Ancel who said, “We’ve spent months tracking—slowly trying to track his people. We haven’t even started talking about getting to him.”
“I know.” And even Laurent’s voice was beginning to colour now, to rise. “But now something’s changed.” Here, he spun back around in his seat, pinning Berenger once more with a gaze as sharp as broken glass. “Did he give you a way to speak to him?”
“I—” Berenger said, caught off-guard by the abrupt address. By the fact that one of the other three men in the room had demonstrated they recalled his presence, after the last few moments had begun to feel like they’d drawn up entirely into themselves with Berenger as the forgotten spare cog.
“Did he give you a way to contact him directly?” Laurent’s voice didn’t rise in volume, exactly, as he questioned. But in intensity.
Questioned. Berenger was being questioned, again, like he might be in a debrief, or a report, by his chief or by any other officer. But this wasn’t his chief. Once upon a time, perhaps once upon a fairytale, he would have said this was the furthest from his chief as one could get. But, well. Well.
So here it was, the request. The counter-offer. And what else was there for him, but this? What else was there to do, where else was there to go? There was Regent, or there was this. There was no law for him to turn to—he was the law, and yet there was no law for him to turn to. There were no good guys here. Not even him.
Maybe he’d already made his choice, somehow, somewhere in this tangled mess of intentions, but that still left him to—to say it. Do it.
He replied, haltingly, again, “I—”
But still. Still. His stomach roiled, his head pounded. His instincts flailed and clawed at the inside of his skull, screeched like failing brakes. Maybe it was a death throe. He was a member of the police force, he had a decade of training and a lifetime’s legacy behind him. Three days ago he had been a member of the police force and it had been normal and it had been his life, he couldn’t just—
“Is he expecting you to set up a meeting in private?”
The shake of Berenger’s head was a jerk. Not an answer, just, “I don’t—”
Thin paper crunched and crinkled as the man across the table leant in again. His tone was quiet as his elbows slid somewhere over the vicinity of east Dockland, not demanding. Almost unexpectedly earnest. “You can help us, Detective. You can make this possible, you can—”
Berenger didn’t realise he’d shouted until silence thudded back over them, blank and stifling. None of the three other men had startled, all too practiced in volatile situations, but they had reacted. They were staring at him, all of them—they’d been looking at him, before, already, but now they were staring. Berenger sucked in a breath. It was unsteady. His shout hadn’t been steady either. He was fairly sure his voice had cracked, he didn’t quite recall.
He said, half a croak, half a plea, “Stop, stop asking me, I can’t—”
And he broke off, yet again. Because there were so many things he couldn’t do. Couldn’t think. Couldn’t decide. Couldn’t believe were happening. But, no, that last one was silly. The world went on regardless of what anyone believed. It always would.
Into that bout of silence, another voice spoke. Soft, slightly lilting. But firm.
“Yes, stop asking him.”
It was Ancel. His spine was straight where he sat, unpropped against the back of his chair. His gaze was on Laurent and not Berenger, but his chin was tipped upward to a staggeringly familiar angle of confidence. A mobster’s right-hand hitman, with the same mannerism as a cocky club dancer.
But that was a useless observation, because of course they were one and the same.
Ancel spoke again, continuing, “Give him some time. It’s been—” His gaze did move to Berenger then, regard steady with just a shadow of something gentle, lips thinning as he searched for the right descriptor. “—a lot.”
That was, indeed, a good descriptor.
Both Laurent and Damianos turned toward Ancel at this interjection. Damianos’s face was still largely impassive, as taciturnly observant as he had been for most of this exchange. Berenger couldn’t see Laurent’s expression from this angle, but he could well imagine the narrow-eyed assessment that was surely being cast Ancel’s way. Just as he could easily imagine the way this ruthlessly eloquent man would have delivered the so-called ‘chewing out’ that Ancel had mentioned earlier upon the breakdown of Berenger’s assumed identity.
No one spoke, for a little time. No one knew how to respond perhaps. It wasn’t that simple, what Ancel had asked.
Berenger said, finally, “If I don’t help you. What then?”
Laurent didn’t turn toward him, at that inquiry. Instead, his gaze swung to Damianos, and the two exchanged a look.
“Then,” came the reply, “you could go to Regent after all. Or your chief. Tell them about Ancel and about me.” Here, Laurent did turn to address Berenger head-on. “Although, I don’t think you’ll do that.”
Berenger swallowed. On the other side of the table, Laurent swallowed too, a tight bob of his throat before he went on.
“If you don’t tell them, you’ll have to come up with a very good explanation why or how. There'd be no more victims, not with everyone's scrutiny on us like this. It would be possible, maybe, to stall the investigation out with no results until they're forced to drop it.”
Would it? Would it be dropped? Or would Regent move against Vasilias and Black Light anyway, specific identity or guilt of persons within be damned.
And even if the best happened, and the investigation ended, there were still the other matters in the air. Like the offer of further partnerships from the man of this morning. And Chief Audin, now that Berenger knew what he was. Would always know.
“Of course, Regent won’t be pleased if they ever find out you lied to them. Maybe you’ll want to go, leave Arles.” Laurent was still talking. His eyes flicked downward. “We—I won’t stop you, if that’s what you’re asking.” Then he turned away once more, looking back over his shoulder, toward Damianos, then Ancel. Lingered longer on Ancel before he finished, “We can even help you disappear, for the help we’re able to give.”
Berenger’s expression shifted, contorting, opening. In contrast to his well-collected interlocutor, he was beyond attempting to control his countenance. He said, surprise edging his voice, “You? Would help if I chose to leave? Is that not an offer you leverage on me helping you first?”
A small puff of air escaped Laurent’s lips, before they pressed firmly together. He shook his head, just once. Then replied, “No.” The word was heavy. His elbows slid forward across the table again. The next words were equally heavy. “I’m not offering to help you escape Regent. I’m offering to let you eliminate the risk entirely.”
"And," Berenger swallowed, "if you win? If you take down Regent?" His lip curled, not in a smile. "I don't suppose you'll call it a victory and settle into quiet retirement?"
The curl of Laurent's lip was more wry, with a touch of indulgence. He took a breath before he replied, a layer of intensity falling from his voice. He answered as a statement. "Someone's got to give the protection the people pay for, Detective. You know how things run, and who has to be here to run them.”
Berenger’s eyelids slid shut, almost slamming. His inhale caught in his throat. Yes. Yes he did know, now, apparently. What he hadn't wanted to believe for so long as he'd stood by his badge. That there were people like Vasilias in the world whom no cop could unweave from the underbelly backbone of their city, that a cop could only hope, maybe, for someone who'd keep things clean.
So, this was it. This was the offer, and it was a good one. To take down Vere’s worst crimelord, wasn’t that exactly what he'd wanted? Exactly what he’d been already trying to do? Only, not like this.
But, apparently, this was the only way there could be.
Across the room, Ancel stood. The motion was a little too fast to be relaxed. He repeated slowly, as he took a step forward, addressing Laurent, "Give him some time.” Neither his stance nor his tone was aggressive, but both had the air of someone who expected to be listened to.
It was Damianos then who frowned. Whose broad shoulders shifted as he looked back and forth between Ancel and Berenger. He said in a low, vague murmur, intended possibly for only the three of them, “How?”
Berenger understood. Despite Laurent’s words, they couldn’t truly trust him not to go straight to Regent with everything he’d just learnt. They’d been willing to take a risk with him, but it was only good sense to be cautious. Berenger wasn’t even sure what he’d do with more time to think, exactly.
Ancel stated, “I’ll stay with him.”
To their credit, neither Laurent nor Damianos reacted outwardly, although also neither were looking at Berenger. Berenger, himself, blinked. He was somewhat glad now that he couldn't see the look that Laurent was currently levelling at Ancel. The pause after that pronouncement seemed to bulge.
Ancel's face was set, composed. There was a different tightness, a different resolution to it from the blank half-focused stare he'd donned earlier. And much unlike the splintering helplessness that Berenger had seen before his associates' arrival. He wasn't looking at Berenger either. Out on the street, a motorcar honked its horn, the sound muffled by the closed window. Somebody in the apartment below slammed a door.
It was Ancel who broke his own silence—not even that long, even though it seemed it. He inhaled, lips parting, and when they closed again Berenger could see the muscles of his cheek shift as his jaw clenched, and unclenched. Then he said, quietly, “It’s alright.” His gaze flicked between his two associates. “You can go, I’ll—we’ll call you later. Tomorrow. Sometime.”
The wood of the dining room chair creaked as Laurent shifted in his seat. He cast a look toward his lover, eyes locking in a long, somewhat pointed exchange. What passed between them exactly in that, Berenger was not privy to observe.
Then, without a word, Laurent planted one hand on the chair-back and pushed himself smoothly to his feet. He turned to Berenger and smiled. The same small matter-of-fact smile as before.
“I’ll be seeing you, Detective.”
It was the kind of parting that could be a threat, especially coming from a man such that Berenger now knew Laurent to be. It was not said like a threat. Berenger almost smiled back. He didn’t because a moment later, the shifting of Damianos’s wide bulk caught his attention instead. The Akielon didn’t speak, just gave Berenger a nod as their gazes met. Then he turned for the door.
Ancel followed them to the doorway, the way he hadn't moved for their arrival. Saw them out and closed the front door behind them, like it was his door to close. Berenger let him. He himself hadn’t moved, much, since he’d shouted. Then, with the snick of a tumbling lock, the two of them were left alone. In his apartment. Ever so slightly, Berenger’s tensed shoulders dropped.
Three days ago, in a situation like this, he would have looked up and smiled. Given a few warm words. Expected a bright reply and one of those quick smiles from Ancel’s lips. Two days ago, he might have been making for his service weapon in his bedside drawer. Now, he really, truly, just didn’t know.
The reason why Ancel was offering to stay with him wasn’t even that high on the list of things that he had to think about, turn over, attempt to make sense of. If Ancel wanted to attempt a persuasive seduction of some kind, he would be disappointed. Berenger was rather sure that he was so tired—not just physically, or even just mentally, but at a complete depth of cell and marrow—that he was incapable of even considering something in that vein. And if Ancel was going to present a persuasive word argument of his own, well, he would be disappointed in that too. Berenger was also so very tired of words—Laurent’s, his uncle’s, his own in his own head. This was a stage that was familiar to him, the information overload stage. When sometimes a case proceeded so quickly, so startingly, that one began to fail to actually process the developments, taking in the words but unable to truly grasp what they meant, the full extent of what they meant. Berenger had been at this stage before. It was the time to take a rest and take a break, come back when knowledge had settled with a fresh mind. He’d been at this stage this morning, before Ancel had knocked at his door.
Even so, tension curdled between them as Ancel turned, and as their gazes met across the room. Only for a moment, a flash of uncertainty hung in the air, a buzzing hesitation on what to do, how to act with each other that—Berenger was fairly certain—didn’t only emanate from himself. Ancel’s hair spilt over the collar of his worn plain jacket, the one that probably covered a gun strapped tight against his ribs, a gun Berenger was sure he knew how to use. But that soft, slightly mussed hair was still the deep red shade that Berenger loved so much. Still framing that handsomely beautiful face that Berenger found so arresting. The same person, the same dancer. The same solid set of those shoulders, the same bright green eyes. Berenger was the one who looked different, if only in being worse for wear. He wondered what Ancel saw, exactly, when he looked at him.
Then the blunt spike of tension was crumbling away, snapped cleanly in two, as Ancel did neither of the things Berenger might have been thinking.
Without moving from his place by the door, Ancel simply stated, “You should rest.”
Berenger frowned. He looked, automatically, toward the window. “What?”
It was afternoon, already. Mid-afternoon in fact. The time had stretched through the long conversation, explanation, revelation from Laurent. The day was passing. The world continued on, with or without the flaking pieces of the corner of it that Berenger had thought he’d managed to carve out for himself.
“You haven’t rested much, have you?”
That much was said gently. Not an accusation, just an observation. And one that probably didn’t take a highly-skilled hired gun—hired something, anyway—to make.
Ancel said again, “You should rest. Take a nap, get some more sleep. Think over this later.”
Berenger swallowed, then nodded. He wasn’t going to protest the suggestion, argue for the principle of it, or something. He’d been wanting to rest since this morning. He pushed himself upward from his seat.
“What are you going to do?” he asked, still meeting that green gaze.
One of Ancel’s shoulders rolled, slightly, motion half-hidden under his loose garments. He replied, easily, clearly, “I’ll wait out here.”
A beat. Articulated, just maybe, by another quickest flash of that tension. Then, Berenger nodded a second time.
Ancel began to make his way toward the table as Berenger stood from it, moving at almost the same pace, as if he were wary about keeping the same distance between them. Berenger crossed the room, stepped past his bedroom threshold without looking back, but then turned in order to shut the door. He saw Ancel standing by the end of the map, looking down at the spread of notebooks that Berenger had half-attentively piled in one corner before Laurent and Damianos’s arrival. As he watched, Ancel glanced up.
“Can I?” he asked, indicating toward the pages of classified police information. The same pages he'd snatched up earlier without a care. There was no sneer in his tone, anymore. Only a mild curiosity.
Berenger felt the cool puff of air in his nostrils before he consciously gave the command for his body to inhale, sharply. His casenotes. And the casenotes of the investigation before him. Everything from the police, what they had, about the Tallow Man. Berenger could imagine why Ancel would be curious, would want to know how he’d been found. There were names in there, sources, contacts, though he didn’t think Ancel or Laurent would hurt any of those people. They wouldn’t have to, no one knew anything really. And they were smart and shrewd enough not to feel the need to do something without practical reason.
And also, it wasn’t like the contents of those notes hadn’t already made their way out of the station.
But, still. Classified police information. Berenger had been taught to value that, honour that for so long. He wasn’t his chief. Not yet, anyway.
He replied, “No.” The syllable was short. “Not—”
Not now. Not before he—he decided, wrapped his head around what he was deciding. He didn’t say that. He didn’t finish the thought.
Ancel cocked his head, his mouth drawing to the sides. After a beat, he said, “Okay.” He took half a step back from the table.
Berenger didn’t move forward, didn’t make to gather up the notes and remove them into his own room, or something. He shut the door. The door felt thinner than usual, the only thing separating himself from Ancel, alone in his apartment.
He did change into sleep clothes, this time. As he puttered around the small room doing his meagre preparations, he could make out the slight noises of Ancel moving around the living area. He had no guarantee that Ancel, out there, would respect his lack of permission, would refrain from thumbing through all those books and files anyway. But he thought maybe, just maybe, he could trust that much. Maybe he wanted to trust that much.
He wasn't sure if he'd actually be able to nap, as he ducked under his thin top blanket and stretched out across his soft, narrow mattress. He wasn't in the habit of it, though with the irregular schedule of his job there had been times he'd had to snatch sleep any hour he could. Still, it was a good time to try. He let his eyes fall shut, let his breathing relax. Tried to withdraw from the stuttering forefront of his thoughts back into the hushed space between lethargy and unconsciousness.
As it happened, he was apparently exhausted enough even after his sleep the previous night that his stalling mind was only too eager to take the chance to shut down. The afternoon sunlight that sneaked its way around his closed curtain lit the inside of his eyelids to a slight red glow. The noises from the living area quietened. The door still felt very, very thin.
He fell asleep on his back, face half turned toward the wall.
Chapter by Entity_Sylvir
*points to the chapter number and sings* Oops! I did it again...
But hey at least they're being posted together this time ;)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Berenger woke to darkness. Almost. The curtained windows on the opposite wall were dim in the night gloom, but there was a growing sliver of orange drawing a thin line underneath his bedroom door. A light on in the rest of his apartment. He wasn’t used to that.
A sticky heaviness itched behind his eyes, the grogginess that came with falling asleep during the day, though with a few blinks he managed to push it away. The world around him was quiet—no bangs and clangs of dinner preparation from the rest of the building, no wall-muffled murmurs of laughter or conversation or screaming matches, no drone of motorcar engines in the streets outside. The stillness of night so late it must have been turning early.
His mind was not still. Not quiet, even after its transient stupor of rest, and it would not be for a while. For now, though. For this time between breaths of the bustling Arles city day, he could pretend that it was.
No sound came either from the other side of his bedroom door, and when Berenger let himself out with a firm twist to the sometimes-sticky knob he saw why. The living area was much as he’d left it, the coat hanging by the door, the chairs pushed out from the dining table, the half-stacked and half-strewn notebooks unmoved from their places across his broad map sheet. But the brown bag and paper-wrapped parcel were new, balanced one atop the other on the seat of one of the chairs, probably on account of the occupied tabletop. As was the tableau of drab cloth and red hair on the other chair by the window.
Ancel had his face tipped back, turned away toward the dark glass. But not far enough that Berenger couldn’t make out his closed eyes and sleep-slackened features, the slight steady rise and fall of his chest under those layers. Judging by his not entirely comfortable-looking sprawl against the chair back, and the book sitting open in his lap, he hadn’t been intending to fall asleep. And even as Berenger watched, he stirred.
“Hmm. Oh. You’re awake.”
Green eyes opened quickly, without a squint or a frown. Settled equally fast, with no waver of disorientation in between. Speaking to the fact, perhaps, that Berenger wasn’t the only one here used to snapping straight to wakefulness whilst in the field—as it were? Or perhaps just that Ancel had only barely dozed off. It wasn’t that unusual an hour, after all, for someone whose day-to-day occupation was in a late-night club. It was more surprising he’d fallen asleep in the first place.
“Yes,” Berenger said. His throat was dry from thirst, but his voice came out clear. “It’s late?”
“Quite.” The word was clipped as Ancel shifted, sitting his back more upright. The crane of his neck looked almost as much a stretch as it was a signal as he nodded vaguely in the direction of the dining table. “There’s food, if you want to eat.”
Following the gesture with his gaze to land on the two packages on the chair, Berenger asked with a little surprise, “Did you go out?”
“No, Damen brought it by.”
Damen brought it by. The thought that he had Damianos Vasilias, revered and most-wanted crime boss, playing delivery boy for his dinner brought out a light snort. By the time that Berenger remembered there wasn’t supposed to be anything light in this situation, it had already come and gone.
He looked back to the figure in his chair and said, to fill the silence, “Have you eaten?”
Ancel had taken off his jacket to spread out over his lap, underneath the book. His hair was still loose and a step more dishevelled than it had been earlier, like he’d been worrying at it with his fingers. He didn’t do that usually, it wasn’t a habit he had. But these weren’t usual circumstances. His expression showed no reaction to Berenger’s almost show of levity.
He left his answer at the one word. He wouldn’t have left any answer at one word, three days ago.
A beat passed. Berenger blinked, Ancel didn’t. He wasn’t avoiding Berenger’s gaze, but neither was he making to move from his slightly-hunched seat. His face was composed. Drawn, with a long-cast shadow of expectancy. Like he’d been waiting—which of course he had been, all these hours—but waiting for long enough that he’d become resigned to whatever would come at the end of it. Whatever it was at all.
He didn’t look beautiful. Not in that way that Berenger had started to think was effortless to him—fine features softly alluring, artlessly prepossessing, even when unposing and unadorned—not now. Not today.
Today, he looked tired. Brows dipped, lips thin, eyes ringed and slightly sunken with darkness. Skin pallid, cheeks untouched by rosy warmth. Tired and strained, and not able to hide it.
This was new, as much as the rest was. Berenger had never seen his lover like this before, had never seen the confident and carefree young man—who was proud of the life he lived, and lived it like he was proud—like this, in the time he’d known him. No more than he’d seen him as a man’s coldly efficient executioner, or a crime lord’s laconic right hand. And yet it was this face, raw and real, that made it easier, so much easier, to forget that very fact. The fact that he couldn’t be certain who Ancel was anymore. That he didn’t know how to talk to him now.
So easy to forget, and simply drop his gaze and say, “You’re reading my book.”
The murmur of sound from Ancel’s throat wasn’t quite a hm. He looked down at the same time that his eyes widened slightly, lids opening a little further to the world. “Well. Nothing else here.”
“Isagoras?” Berenger noted. The barest creeping of a lilt coloured his voice. “What did you think?”
The reply to that wasn’t immediate, not like the sharp quips that he’d come to know well, that never missed a beat. But still, it came.
“Terrible. You did notice I fell asleep, didn’t you?” With a twitch of his fingers, Ancel flipped the cover shut, one long finger moving to trail down the well-worn spine, another remaining wedged between the previously open pages. Keeping his place.
Berenger shifted from one foot to the other, and back, not really taking a step. “I didn’t think he would be your style,” he said lightly. Truthfully.
A small breath huffed from Ancel’s lips. “He has a good way with words.” The concession sounded the tiniest bit begrudging. “Can’t spin a story to save his life though.”
Something twitched in Berenger’s chest, like an itch. A little bit more than an itch. A shoot that poked its way tentatively out of the ground whilst unsure if it was the correct season to grow.
“Not his strong suit, no."
He didn’t comment on Ancel reading Akielon. Until, a moment later, he realised that he could.
“How did you learn Akielon?”
The line of Ancel’s shoulders rose before falling, settling. Though he’d hardly moved, there was something in his new posture that looked a touch more comfortable. The pause was barely long enough to be notable before he answered, “There were some Akielons in the streets where I grew up, and with the travelling performers. I started picking it up almost as early as I was speaking Veretian.”
“You read it too?”
A moment after he asked, Berenger felt a little abashed at bringing up Ancel’s previous troubles with reading. Ancel, on the other hand, didn’t bat an eyelash. He had never been ashamed of where he’d come from.
“Not very well. Slowly. The others at the club have been helping me with it.” His fingertips tapped, stroking down the spine of the poetry volume. “Mister Verbose wasn’t making it any easier for me though.”
Realisation came stumbling suddenly, a handful of steps behind, over Ancel’s earlier words. In the streets where I grew up, and with the travelling performers. Berenger blinked his gaze back up from the familiar beige cover of his book, and the—also familiar—slender fingers cradling it. Whatever he was about to mention about Isagoras and imagery hitched into vapour in his throat.
He went long enough without speaking, apparently, that Ancel took it as cue the conversation was over. With a sweep of his legs, he stood up from the chair and turned away to set down the book behind him. Assuming, maybe, that the moment—whatever single breath of familiar air between them that had been—was over. Maybe he was right. Berenger noticed he’d let the book shut to lose his page.
They said nothing as Ancel stepped past and around to the other side of the table, picking up the paper-wrapped parcel along the way. By the time Berenger spoke, the words came out like a non-sequitur. His voice wasn’t weak. It sounded slightly hollow.
“How much of it was true?”
Partway through unpacking their food atop a sparse corner of the map, Ancel’s hands stilled a whisper too abruptly to be comfortable. When he looked up, his face was bland, carefully so. Like he was trying very specifically to avoid showing confusion.
He replied, “True?”
“The street performers,” Berenger stated. “Your first club. Your stories.”
Ancel’s pale throat bobbed just barely visibly as he swallowed. His expression flickered. “All of it.”
A nod. Not that Berenger was disbelieving, or believing either. Only that he’d heard.
There was a loose thud as Ancel dropped his palms to the tabletop, shifting his weight forward. He didn’t shrug up his shoulders, even whilst leaning down on braced arms. Berenger remembered him talking about pushing through the shoulders when explaining through his routines. His chin tipped a degree higher.
“It was real,” he said. “Everything I told you.”
I just didn’t tell you everything, Berenger filled in the blank.
Across the room, over the top of the dining table that hadn’t been bare in weeks, wide green eyes blinked. A smooth muscle twitched on the side of a pale cheek.
“My first club, it was owned by Regent.”
It wasn’t a surprise. Not really. Berenger tugged himself out of the position he’d almost frozen in, untwisting his torso, taking the few steps forward to the table’s edge. He said nothing, and neither did Ancel leave room for him to. The words came without pause, with the surety of a testimony.
“It was a relief at first. Earning more, like I said. Getting off the street. I even got a cot in a room behind the bar with a couple of the other performers, rent free. Not real comfortable though. It was nicer when someone shelled out for a whole night, and we got to sleep in one of the client rooms instead.”
It wasn’t easy, suddenly, to hold that piercing, brilliant gaze. It was harder to look away.
“The man in charge, he gave it a few months before he started asking extra things of me. Long enough for me to feel like I had a new home, had people around me that deserved my loyalty. Some of them did. Some of them weren’t bad boys and girls.”
Berenger had heard a lot of testimonies. No small number of which, even, had contained tales much like this one. Some people got their story out in fragments, between sobs or gasps or screams, half buried under the weight of their own memories. Some people recited it like a theatre assistant prompting lines, statements repeated and retold so many times inside their own heads they could almost pretend they were describing someone else. And some people, some people spoke like it was the easiest thing in the world. Like it didn’t matter at all, like they didn’t care anymore. Those were the most frightening to hear.
Ancel spoke like a challenge. Unashamed of his past, he always had been, but now his musical voice was laced even more sharply with a soft edge of shimmering steel. Like moonlight reflecting off a blade. It wasn’t a challenge to Berenger, not even warranted as that may have been, here, now, sleeves turned out and last cards on the table. No, merely a challenge to the world at large. A dare to pass judgement of what he had made with the place he’d been given.
“A lot of it was simple. Oh we have an important guest tonight, make sure he gets real special treatment. Oh we have someone we don’t want to encourage tonight, don’t pay him too much attention. The times it was less usual, it was mostly information. Try to get him to talk about something. See if you can find something out. I was good at finding things out.”
Of course you were, thought Berenger. You would have been the best.
“I was good at it, and I didn’t ask questions, because I knew that getting those answers wouldn’t have been a good idea. Some of the others, they weren’t as good as me. Louans, the man in charge, sometimes he came up with a good story for why someone was gone. Sometimes he didn’t bother, at least not with me. He liked me, at that point. Liked me a lot.”
It didn’t take someone to know Ancel, either his mannerisms or his affect on people, to read between the lines on what that meant. Part of Berenger’s mind peeped up to question why Ancel was telling him this. Another other part, which took in pallid cheeks and green eyes ringed with dark, thought it might already know why he wanted to.
Wanted to tell his story. All of it. Tell it to Berenger.
“One day, the day before I was booked a whole evening and night with a client, Louans pulled me into his office. He handed me a dose of Rosé, a very big dose. Told me that I was to make sure to pour a drink and slip it in last thing before tomorrow’s guy went to sleep. So that he’d already be out by the time it hit.”
The breath in Berenger’s lungs felt colder than the tepidly warm air of his modest apartment. Instinct flipped him through his mental index cards—Rosé, a powder drug, not new but one that had surged in supply and popularity on the streets of Arles the last few years. Usually inhaled but could be ingested for slower effect. Fatal, of course, on overdose.
“The client, he wasn’t a regular of mine, but I’d seen him around before. He watched me on stage, we’d chatted a time or two when I was serving drinks, but nothing more than that. He didn’t have the money for more than that, I suppose. Until now.”
Something cracked, finally, behind Ancel’s visage. Nothing huge, nothing dramatic, just a fissure of old emotion rippling over his smooth composure. Berenger couldn’t have missed it.
“I knew his name, but that was all. I had no idea who he was.” The last consonant caught on his lips, lingering a split-second too long into a hiss. “Or what he’d done. I didn’t know if he was an informer who was trying to go to the police. If he was a lowlife scum who’d been too sick even for Regent. If he was a nobody of anybody who’d just happened to accidentally win too much at a rigged gambling table.”
Those sea-green eyes were like frosted glass, still bright, still beautiful, but etched by a thousand edges that had left their mark. The muscles around them tightened. The lifeless testimonies that Berenger had recalled, the people who’d forgotten how to care—Ancel was not one of them.
“That night, I slipped the whole dose into Louans’s drink instead.”
The quiet puff of their breaths came together, matched across opposite sides of the map-strewn table. Like air being let from a balloon. A balloon that had taken up the entirety of the space between them, and now been pricked by the smallest of pins.
Berenger unstuck his feet from the floor, not that he had anywhere to go, shuffling a half step sideways before the question fluttered off his tongue. Not a question for Ancel, but one he would have meant to ask a person like the Tallow Man.
“Was it hard?”
Ancel blinked, golden lashes catching in the light. For a moment he didn’t respond, jaw working with a few subtle movements but lips still shut. Then, when he did, it wasn’t with an answer.
“Have you ever done it?” he asked. “Have you ever killed another person?”
An intimate question—shockingly so—even for people who knew each other, or maybe didn’t, or maybe did, like Ancel and he. But, Berenger let tip his head. A single nod.
“An armed robbery, back when I was walking a beat. Escalated to a shootout.”
He braced himself for a speech, or something like it, maybe on how this made them not so different in the end. He was the barest bit curious where Ancel was going to take this. He should have been expecting a speech, after all, ever since Ancel had offered to stay with him and his decision. He watched as Ancel’s lips parted, formed—
Berenger was surprised for a few seconds into muteness. Then, he said, because it was true, “It had to be done.”
“I know,” Ancel replied. “That’s why I’m sorry.”
And Berenger understood.
There’d been talks with his chief, after the shootout. Reassurances, and offers to let him see an alienist. No offers of time off though, they didn’t have the numbers for that. Nor any suggestions that he, twenty-one years old and fresh out of training, could want to reconsider whether he wanted to do this job after all.
He had floated the idea of leaving the force past himself, simply because it was an option whose existence couldn’t be missed. He hadn’t floated it for long. Mostly, what Berenger recalled when he cast back to those days after the incident was the feeling of waking up the next morning and seeing the ceiling of his bedroom. Same bedroom, same ceiling as the day before.
Because he’d thought, expected, that the world would be different after what had happened. That he would be different after what he had done, that thing that was beyond consideration for so many people on their streets and cosy in their houses with their wives and husbands and children, that thing that he’d had to do. The world, though, was the same. And him, almost.
In fact, the world was exactly what it always had been. Cold and unforgiving and filled with contradiction as to what was right, unyielding to compromise, immovable in the face of what people wanted it to be. He was simply one who knew it better now.
Berenger understood, and so did Ancel.
“After Louans, someone came around to check out what happened. Not police.”
Into the new silence, Ancel slipped back into his raconting without ceremony. With a release of unconsciously held breath, Berenger set himself back to listening.
“I figured Regent were the ones to give the order on my client. I didn’t know how much they knew exactly about how Louans was planning it, or about me. I played dumb. Louans didn’t take the stuff, not usually, not that anyone could say. But it wasn’t too hard to believe that he could have given it a try. They bought it.”
His words began to take on a touch of lift. A gentle buoyancy of something that—even in all this, despite all this—he wasn’t shy to recall.
"Then, Laurent came around. Wondering the same things himself, asking different questions. And he didn't buy it."
Ancel was almost smiling.
“Ah,” said Berenger. “So that’s how it started.” ‘It’, here, meaning so many things.
“That’s how it started.”
Bright red hair shimmered copper-gold under the warm light of the overhead as Ancel's head bent forward, breaking their gazes finally apart. One hand shifted sideways, fingers crinkling in the paper of the forgotten food parcel, the other lifted to swipe a chunk of that hair back behind his ears. Then it joined the first.
“You know how the rest goes. We began to work together, plan together, Laurent and I and the others he found who followed him. When he had to run, Laurent found Damen and opened Black Light, and we came with him.”
e began to unpack once more.
“Now, let’s eat. I’m hungry.”
Berenger was too.
It wasn’t Akielon food, perhaps he was over-simplifying in his expectation that it would be. Ancel unwrapped a boxed array of cold cuts from the butcher’s paper, to go with a pair of pastries from the paper bag that had also gone cold. Berenger had eaten enough cold food on stakeouts or up late going over casefiles that he didn’t mind.
After the previous torrent of words, they ate now in silence. The food looked expensive, tasted it too. At least better than what Berenger would have usually bought for himself, what with his modest detective’s salary, and his simple habits that had been honed from a modest beat cop’s salary. Ancel ate with his fingers, like he usually did at home. Berenger didn’t bother getting a fork either.
“This is good,” Ancel said when he first bit into the pastry. They hadn’t been avoiding eye contact, they’d also both been mostly paying attention to the food. The quiet hadn’t been oppressive, not dense like the tension of the previous day. Close to their comfortable silences of the past, when they’d been two people who shared a space without feeling the need to fill it. So close.
Berenger, who was already halfway through his pastry—rich gravy, hearty meat and vegetables—replied, “It is.”
And then he put it down.
He had been very hungry after the last couple of days, and finally able to feel it. Now he was less hungry, and less tired, sitting across his own dining table from the Tallow Man as his mob mole chief of police was probably wondering when he was going to return his telephone calls. And as the man who could take down Regent awaited a call of his own.
Across the dining table, the Tallow Man scratched the side of his nose with a long green nail. There was a spot of gravy on his cheek. He met Berenger's gaze, blinked, and licked a flake of pastry off his bottom lip.
World was exactly what it always had been. And in that world, there were things that had to be done. That Berenger could do. He may not be sure of who he was anymore—but, whatever it was, he'd been it before too.
“Ancel,” Berenger said, and swallowed. “I’d like you to ring Laurent.”
* * *
* * *
* * *
On one side of Arles, a dial tone began to sound. On another, a man picked up.
“I—I have something for you. Someone. I haven’t spoken to my chief yet, I thought maybe, maybe…”
“Well, I don’t know how many chances I have. Maybe you should just see—meet him.”
“A man at the club, Black Light. He's definitely mixed up in something there, one of my sources told me he's been trying to find out what the police and the press know about the Tallow Man. I don't think the name he uses is real.”
“Yes. Blond hair, blue eyes. Real pretty, if you don't mind me saying so, sir.”
“He seems smart. Like I said, I don’t know how many chances—”
“Oh, yes. Good idea to be cautious. You say he’ll be somewhere I can meet him?”
“I think so. There’s a building on the corner of Steppes and East Gate Street, old looking. The ground floor is a restaurant, they leave the basement unlocked. Can you be there tomorrow, midday?”
“Will he be alone?”
“He should be.”/p>
“And why will he be alone in the basement of the restaurant at Steppes and East Gate at midday, hm?”
“He thinks it’s to do with Rosé. I’m handling it.”
“I see. Will you be there too?”
“Should I be?”
“I think it would be helpful, yes. Meet him at midday. If he's not alone, get him out. If he is, stall him for fifteen minutes until I arrive. I won’t be early. Can you do that?”
“I believe so, yes."
“Well. Good work, Detective. I will have to arrange a thank you.”
“There’s no need—”
“When this is over, of course. After midday tomorrow. I will certainly arrange something for you. Depending on the outcome.”
“I see. Of course.”
“Yes, good work. One more question.”
“If it transpires that I require your backup regarding this man of yours, can I trust you to provide it?”
No pause. “Yes, sir. Of course.”
“Then I will see you soon.”
“See you soon, sir.”
- - -
At precisely fifteen minutes past midday, outside the restaurant on Steppes and East Gate, a black motorcar pulled up to the curb. A man got out, middle-aged and neatly groomed, shutting the door behind himself and heading for the stairs to the basement. The car pulled away, proceeding to do a slow circle of the block, returning when it was done to park back at the same spot it had stopped earlier. The driver got out, unattractive and plainly-dressed. Locking the motorcar, he positioned his bulk at the top of the stairs where the first man had disappeared down, and which he’d confirmed was the only entrance and exit to the basement.
The minutes passed. No one exited from the basement door, nor did audible sounds of alarm or scuffle or anything else emanate from it. The restaurant was shut at this time, only open for dinner. The street wasn’t in the best parts of town, but not the worst either, reasonably populated for the middle of the work day. People strolled by periodically, none paid any particular attention to the loitering driver.
By precisely forty-five minutes past midday, the first man had still not re-emerged onto the street. Neither had anybody else. The driver, by previous arrangement, strode down the stairs and removed a handgun from under his jacket. He tried the door. It was unlocked.
Holding the gun aloft, he eased the door open, and edged around the frame.
The room was empty.
A beat passed in silence. Then a longer one, long enough to ascertain that there were no dark corners or hidden alcoves that had been missed, to verify that there were no windows or any other exits, to reaffirm that the basement was, indeed, empty.
Then, not so quietly, the man began to panic.
- - -
The first time Berenger told his mother that he was going to be a policeman when he grew up, she’d looked at him with moist eyes and said, “I’m sure you’ll be like your father someday.”
His pronouncement had come as no surprise. In fact, the main reason it hadn’t come any earlier was simply that it had been more or less taken for granted throughout the years of his childhood. But, he’d finally said it in so many words sometime around the time he’d turned fifteen, whilst his classmates at high school had been deciding which shop courses to take, and it had been enough to make her smile and tear.
Berenger had been seven years old when his father had taken his heroically fatal bullet at the hands of attempted bank robbers. Old enough to have memories of him, of course, and yet as time passed it had gradually become less and less easy to grasp the full shape of the big man with a loud laugh and warm hands and a tight hug. Harder and harder to separate what was true recollection from what might have been only the grasping imagination of his childish mind, layered over night after cold night of trying to picture what it was like to have a father.
“I’m sure you’ll be like your father someday.”
What Berenger didn’t tell his mother was that the clearest, truest memory that he had about his father was not even of the big man with the loud laugh. That what came to mind when he heard his father’s name, heard the fond mentions or the inspiring stories, was the time his school class had taken a trip to the central police station and passed their tour by an honour wall of newspaper clippings. The girl in front had pointed to one cutout article, and front page feature, and said, “Hey, it’s your dad.”
Varenne wasn’t a bustling province, not even at its capital. She knew his name, knew the story. POLICE CHIEF GUNNED DOWN PROTECTING CIVILIAN HOSTAGES, read the headline, and Berenger remembered the starkness of those thick printed letters on yellowing paper, seven words that pithily summed up the defining instance of his family and his young life. Written out for the world to read, tacked up on a wall for future generations of the force to behold. The girl who’d pointed them out was smiling through two missing front teeth. He would remember those black words with their hard edges long after the big man began to blur.
“I’m sure you’ll be like your father someday.”
Berenger’s mother had passed two years after he’d finished his training. She never lived to see her words come true.
DETECTIVE ON TALLOW MAN CASE LATEST VICTIM OF KILLER
The front page feature of his death came with the morning edition of what promised to be a warm day with a hint of drizzle. Berenger read it at the counter of the kitchen above Black Light, then downed the remaining half cup of his coffee.
Rosé is my street name for the pink powder that Damen is drugged with in book 1.
Now is a good a time as any to mention that highly purified lamp oil is, indeed, a popular fuel for fire performers because it's safer and more stable. It's more difficult to ignite, and burns without smoke or odour if it's purified enough. It isn't that difficult to get a hold of these days, but I will say that it was in historical Vere ;) It also does burn hotter and for longer, though the fact that those properties might make it better for disposing of a body is extrapolation on my part.
Chapter by Entity_Sylvir
WHOO AND HERE IS THE ACTUAL ACTUAL LAST CHAPTER!!!!
Thanks so much for everyone for coming along for this ride! This story took me through many things, including finding and starting not one but two jobs. And each was better than the last ;) It's been incredibly exciting because it also broke my record for longest thing written by miles (previous record was 24k). I'd originally expected to be much shorter, but the plot and the character really took me for a ride too. And it was a lot of fun to be there for them.
Now that it's no longer spoilers, I can finally share the summary that silverdraeconis provided along with the artwork for the reverse bang prompt. So, credit for the opening premise goes that way :D As well as for the plenty of brainstorming and outlining that we did together.
Berenger is a detective, investigating a serial killer who happens to be Ancel. Ancel is also a stripper and Berenger has to go undercover to a strip club to investigate. (Also please include some friendship between Ancel and Laurent, who is also a stripper and may or may not be aware of the entire serial killer thing)
Also just going to glomp my bestest beta veretianblue one more time. *glomp*
And on with story.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Sometimes, it was hard to tell whether things ended with a bang or a whimper. Hard when a whimper could sound like a bang in the silence, or a bang could echo like a whimper long after it was done.
In the time he'd spent hiding out in Laurent and Damianos's apartment, Berenger had discovered that the floor and walls did a poor job of muting the music and rabble from the bar, whilst the richly-coloured drapes curtaining the windows did a much better job of blocking the morning sun. The place was surprisingly homely, with bare wooden walls which showed off the age of the historic building, and which in the evenings reflected the flame of the oil lamps with a warm, pleasant glow. A furnished spare bedroom slotted in down the corridor between the master bedroom and the room used as the study. A sizable living area completing the space with a couple of plush chairs, and a couch that was just slightly too soft. Berenger had taken the spare bedroom. Ancel, he knew, had spent more than one of the recent nights on that couch.
He'd also discovered that the thick drapes were just as good at keeping out the sun at midday, and into the afternoon too, for the late-early hours after club closing had seen them long awake around the wooden dining table that was too wide for two people but a little tight for four. The show had to go on, after all. And it seemed, for those who split their life between the dust of the streets and the spotlights of the stage, it was the darkest hours before dawn that was the time for plans.
The days it had taken them to make their move had felt long. Dragging, stumbling, without the rhythm and focus of the work that had followed Berenger for the last decade. Sometimes when the others were busy with dailies of the club, he wandered downstairs. Dropping in almost like he'd used to, when he grew too restless to continue sitting alone in the apartment not his own, that belonged to two people he didn't know and had to trust.
They knew. The people of Black Light, not all of them were involved, but they all knew. It had been unmissable from the moment Berenger had stepped back inside and felt the pall of carefully balanced tension that the bar staff and the guards—and the very walls themselves, it seemed—had shifted into place around him. But whilst it was wary, scored with the uncertainty that came from being wrongfooted, it wasn't hostile. They knew, and they trusted the judgement of their boss. Bosses.
And they didn't avoid him. They didn't talk to him like before, and they didn't talk to him as if he were one of them, but he'd unexpectedly seemed to slot in somewhere a step sideways of both. Through dribs and drabs of conversation he found out that Jord and Orlant had been Laurent's bodyguards from before they'd left Regent, and had adapted comfortably into their extra roles at the club. Likewise, the Akielons currently working security were Damianos's men who'd arrived with him to Vere. Kallias had been a gift of sorts from Damianos's brother when they'd begun their search for performers. Erasmus, meanwhile, had been hired from the streets of Arles. He was also perfectly aware, though, of course, of exactly whom he was working for.
No one asked Berenger any questions. Berenger wasn't sure if it was because they'd been instructed not to, or because they didn't want to know. Either way, he was thankful. He had no answers even for himself, in those days, let alone anyone else.
Of the ones who did ask him questions, who did press him at every chance for information and details and possibilities, they spoke of little else but the matter at hand. Perhaps even amongst themselves, from what Berenger had gleaned staying in that homely apartment with not very thick walls. Laurent and Damianos both were quiet when not at the planning table, drifting in some combination of simultaneously drained and on-edge. Berenger saw them together one time, through the slightly ajar door of their bedroom. They were embracing, what sounded like murmured Akielon passing in low tones between them. Their position wasn't lewd, not amorous, but there was a depth of rightness in the way they fit against each other that felt startlingly intimate. Berenger had hastened past down the corridor with as quiet a step as he could manage.
And then, there was Ancel. Ancel. Berenger saw yet another side of him in those days, the side that had placed him at Laurent's right hand, and on the front page of the police's attention. They each had different seats at the table, the three of them. Damianos, the battlefield commander who directed the broad-reaching movements. Laurent, the strategist who spun tangled threads of manoeuvres and manipulations around his enemy. And Ancel, the one on the street. The one who got his hands dirty, and who had the last say on the best way to do it.
They, Berenger and Ancel, were rarely alone in that time. At first Berenger had some suspicion that he wasn't being trusted to not change his mind, not to turn around and rush the other way at any disruption to his tentatively balanced emotional footing. Later, he began to realise that it might have been more for Ancel's sake than his own. This thing, this weight that hung over the three others, this fight that Berenger had just barely started to stumble into, was too big. Like a smog so thick it blocked not only the sun, but every light around. They were too close, now, to look away long enough to stumble.
Sometimes Ancel stayed on the couch, when the nights had gone too long for him to make the walk back to his own apartment. The walls weren't quite so thin that Berenger was able to make out the sleeping evenness of his breath from the other room. Sometimes he walked past close enough that Berenger could catch a hint of the perfume of his soap.
On the day they finally made their move, Berenger's nose was too full of old damp earth to smell anything else as he stood pressed between Ancel's side and the rough stone wall. The passage under the building at Steppes and East Gate Street was cramped and near pitch black with the barest gloom of the shuttered lantern on the ground behind them. Through the hidden peeping sliver, they watched as the mean-looking Regent bodyguard pushed through the door, to freeze in shock at the sight of the empty basement. Shock turned to franticness as he began to walk the length of the floor, casing the room for signs of another exit. Even after he roared in anger and kicked over the stacked half-broken chairs, throwing the rickety abandoned table against the wall, he didn't find the combination of bricks that marked the passage's entrance.
‘Secret and bold', went the motto of old Vere. They may no longer be rebels hiding in foxholes, but the Arles police force had a number of secret tunnels throughout the city, unveiled and amassed and repurposed over the decades. Some were relics of smuggling operations, some dug during wartime. The locations of the newer police stations were chosen so that many had clandestine routes in and out. The tunnels not between stations remained aces up their sleeves for moving undetected about different parts of the city. All of them, primarily, were used by undercover officers. And this one led to Dockland.
Laurent and Damianos had already left down the black mouth, porting the dead weight of their target between them. They'd argued about it, beforehand, about the risk of having Laurent actually present to greet his uncle, of taking the monumental leap of showing off their position. But, Laurent had insisted it was the only way to capture his uncle's attention, truly and completely, whilst Ancel sneaked up behind on silent feet with the grace of the dancer that he was. He'd been right.
Berenger had known it before, seen it before, that it always seemed too fast. Too easy, in the end. But even those at the very top had their arrogances, blind pin-spots, bare moments of lapse, and all it took was one. It wasn't the first time he'd seen a person drop like that. Literally, figuratively, both.
Blow to the back of the head with a blunt force weapon. Not certain to be fatal, but likely to cause dangerous injury to the brain, especially if the subsequent consciousness loss was left untreated. Berenger had heard the medical diagnosis before. Or, more commonly, read the coroner's report.
Afterward, in the dark of the tunnel with the quiet breath and slight warmth of the familiar body beside him, he wondered if this had been another reason for Ancel's delicate distance between them. Because Ancel had known the likelihood of it coming to something like this, of Berenger watching with his own eyes what he already knew with his mind that those hands could do. Had done. As if seeing would upend the tenuous understanding they'd come to.
Between lungfuls of dusty air, as he watched the Regent man finally give up his wild search, stomp out the door, slam it so hard it shook its frame, Berenger decided it didn't. He hadn't enjoyed it, no, not given the stricture around his pounding heart that had yet to release, the lingering sliver of numb, sharp shock edging his consciousness at the efficiency of Ancel's single brutally effective motion. But, he'd spent long enough in the alleys and crannies of Arles city to shy from the notion of burying his head under the sand in the face of truths that hurt to look at. Even if he was still blinking the grains from his eyes to behold the force he'd devoted his career to, and the man he—well.
World was exactly what it always had been. He was simply one who knew it better now.
Ancel's breath was gentle against his ear, as the last heavy footsteps retreated up the stairs and back to the street. Berenger could feel the length of him shiver, then slump just the lightest bit.
It was. He'd taken down the most wanted man in Arles, maybe Vere, and he'd done it like this.
The next part, actually, hadn't been part of the plan. At least, not part of Berenger's initial proposal. He hadn't thought far past Damianos waiting in the tunnel to lend his strength to the extraction, his men stationed on guard at its other end. Berenger himself emerging behind them after making sure their way out had remained undiscovered, Ancel wiping the few drops of blood off his heavy iron candlestick and disposing of it back into any one of the piles of refuse that lay at the doorsteps of so many abandoned buildings. Berenger didn't know which one of them would be the exact one to finish the job. Perhaps Laurent. Either way, Ancel would deal with it, after.
And with all that, Berenger supposed, it was simply an opportunity too good to pass up. One last disappearance, this time unable to be missed unlike the others, a failure to report within the very police themselves. To explain one last body, average height and broad build, little else recognisable as always. The age wasn't right, but age was hard to pinpoint, with the Tallow Man. Given a cant of suggestion, the margin of error could be flexible.
It was a quick discovery, this one. Timed to a beat cop who was in the habit of poking his head in on the more potentially dangerous buildings on his circuit. Interviews with every beat cop in Dockland had been included in the investigation casefiles. All it took was Berenger's standard issue service weapon, kicked deep into one of the debris-strewn corners of the old factory that now housed the remains of what used to be Laurent's uncle. The new detectives called in had not managed to miss it.
That was how the lynchpin of Arles's underbelly vanished out from under the attention of his own personal bodyguard, without a trace. And how Berenger died.
- - -
The night after the morning he made front page headlines, Berenger walked by the half-open door of the study to catch a flash of coppery red through the frame.
He was on his way out of the guest room, where he'd been sitting at the edge of his temporary bed, examining the small colourful tapestry of a market scene on the opposite wall. One of Laurent's contributions to the decoration, he hazarded a guess. He'd been planning to stroll to the kitchen, maybe make himself a cup of tea.
Instead, he paused. His socked feet glided against the floorboards, limbs locking almost before he gave them the command. The thing in his chest, unlike his limbs, did not still.
Damianos and Laurent had yet to return all day. Out dealing with the chaos of Regent's sudden loss of leadership—all the more shocking for its inexplicable end—and hopeful collapse. Nothing that could be seen on the surface of the city, of course, but Berenger was sure it was there. Just as he was sure that, soon, the news would be spreading about Laurent's seizure of control in the wake of the new power vacuum, backed by both his alliance with Vasilias and the fact that he commanded a ghost who could remove his enemies without a trace. With any luck, no one would ever make any connection to the Tallow Man, whose reign of terror in Dockland would eventually slip into old newspaper clippings and stories told around the shuttered lantern.
It was late now, even by their standards. Just after closing for the club, as the old building settled into the strange muffled hush of a space not used to silence. Laurent had missed this evening's show, Berenger was fairly sure Ancel hadn't performed either. It must have been a quiet night on the floor.
Through the office doorway, Ancel sat in the stuffed chair with his booted feet crossed at the ankles in front of him. His hair was piled in a messy bun at the top of his head, slightly off-centre. He was dressed in casual clothes, not the deliberately drab ensemble of his street disguise, but also not quite hitting his usual impeccable style. Maybe someone else could have missed it, but to Berenger the outfit, as a whole, appeared slightly off. Like Ancel had simply picked up the first items on the tops of his drawers.
He made Berenger think of a soldier after the end of a war. Quietly, imperatively content, forcibly satisfied, and dropped back into life with just the slightest mismatch in the edges of their puzzle piece place within it. Or maybe like a detective at the close of a case.
Ancel didn't move at the soft glide of the opening door. Concentrating, Berenger realised, on the thick book in his lap. He wasn't going so far as squinting, there was no furrow in the perfect smooth skin of his brow, but those sharp green eyes were affixed with singular intent on the page before him. They were only lightly ringed with the dark of fatigue.
It was past closing on Ventiday night. Berenger looked, took a breath, felt his heart thump over in the moment that passed for him to let it back out. Then, he leapt. Or, perhaps, he quietly let the last remnants of the ground crumble away from beneath him.
“You're not practicing?“
It was an interesting thing, to pick out that he'd taken Ancel by surprise. Barely a flash of it across his countenance before it smoothed back out. Not just surprise at his presence, Berenger knew, but at his words. The fact he'd had words at all.
These weren't the first they'd exchanged—far from it, of course, but they still hadn't quite figured it out. This new thing of talking to each other as what—who—they really were. Not yet.
The fabric of Ancel's embroidered shirt rustled against the chair back. He shook his head, said, “Brushing up on my Akielon.“
At a glance, his choice of reading material looked on par with the short stack of volumes by the wall that barely qualified as a bookshelf. Berenger took a stab. “One of Damianos's?“
Another rustle. “Yes.“
Those green eyes were clear like forged glass. A moment passed, still and long. Almost a moment and a half, even, before Berenger gave the door a firm push wider and stepped inside.
“Does it have a better story?“
The corners of Ancel's mouth tugged. Long fingers hesitated over the pages before he slid the book a little further down his lap, shifting in his seat to sit up a little straighter. Turning to face more in the direction of the door.
“It's a history, actually,“ he replied. Then he did smile properly, albeit in a here-and-gone blink. “One of Damen's favourites. He's been trying to recommend it forever.“
A memory flickered behind Berenger's eyes. Another time, at Ancel's rickety kitchen table, with their roles reversed. And like Ancel had asked then about The Conquest Of Arsaces, he asked now, “Tell me the story?“
They hadn't quite figured it out, hadn't managed to peel away all the layers of hovering uncertainty, to find their shifting footholds on trying to remember what to make of each other. But, somewhere in the last days, between the revelations and the scheming and the shared place in a strange apartment, it had sunk in for Berenger with the weight of inevitability that they would. One day. Soon.
Ancel's fingers arched gently, tips stroking down his open page in a seemingly unconscious movement. “It's the history of Damalis, the slave-queen of Akielos. Rumour has it, Damen's family is descended from her.“ He paused, pale throat shifted in a swallow. At the lack of interjection, after a beat, his tongue darted out to wet his lips as he continued. “When King Theron and both his heirs were killed in the same battle at the front of the Patran War, the country was thrown into uncertainty. The only person with any claim to the throne was the late queen's daughter, conceived illegitimately by her favourite slave.“
Berenger cocked a hip, settling his weight to lean against the door behind him. He knew enough of the history of both countries to guess this story wasn't going the direction an illegitimate royal conception would have gone in Vere.
"Damalis had been trained as a palace slave, but educated in secret by her mother. With her knowledge of the inner workings of the palace, the aid of a ring of supporters from amongst the staff, not to mention the power of the secrets she'd amassed over the years, she rose up to seize control in the capital of Ios. She was no army commander, but she sent off prompt missives to the battlefront fortifying strategies and appointing the best generals in the wake of their losses. The day her armies arrived home victorious, was the same day she took her official coronation as queen.“
Ancel's gaze dropped from Berenger's again, not in avoidance, just turning faraway.
“But, the victory in the war isn't what she's most remembered for.“ Pink lips firmed, not just in a smile but an affirmation. “That, they say, began the very next day. And lasted ten long years, but in the end it was done. Her campaign to end slavery in Akielos.“
Paper crinkled as Ancel picked up the left stack of pages and began to rifle through, leaving one finger to mark his current spot. When he stopped, it was to tip the book upwards to display a rendition of a simple sketch of a man's face. The shading suggested high cheekbones and sleek hair, pale lips, light eyes.
“This is the only image we have of Damalis's father, a personal keepsake it looks like. He disappeared from history before her reign. No one knows if he lived, or how.“ The book tipped back down. “One thing, though. It's believed that he was Veretian.“
Slowly, Berenger shifted and took a step forward, and another, floorboards creaking lightly beneath his heels until he stood at the arm of the chair. Close enough he could have reached out and trailed fingers over the book, or over the back of Ancel's hand. Memory flickered again. He said, “That was a good story.“
Not a very Akielon one, even, with secrets and schemes and no righteous definitions of honour. There was some of Vere in Akielos's history, it seemed, in more ways than one. But Berenger could see how a family like Vasilias might like a story like this, an unexpected a connection as it might be. Power was a fickle thing, a nebulous one. So many people believed they deserved it for so many different reasons. Kings and slaves. Chiefs and criminals. Who was to say which of them had the greater right, the longer legacy.
And maybe, in all of this, all there was for one person to do was dodge the towers as they toppled.
Ancel didn't say more. His eyes were still far away, fingers drumming idly over top of the queen's father's face. As Berenger waited for his mind to return, his own thoughts began to roll back through the conversation. Something occurred.
He asked, “Brushing up on your Akielon? Now?“
In a breath, Ancel's head swivelled, their gazes meeting once more. He nodded, once, before pursing his lips to reply.
“Laurent,“ he began, syllables carefully rounded behind his lips, “thought it might be a good idea for me to go away.“ The strong curve of his shoulders fell, a fraction, along with his tone. “At least for a while. We were as thorough as we could be, but there are people around who could recognise me. And people who will be poking around with suspicions, asking questions.“
“Oh.“ And Berenger, suddenly, didn't know what else to say. “You're leaving.“
A silence, the thump of his heart in his own ears. He cleared his throat.
“They'll miss you.“
Ancel's eyes swept to the door, the one that led down the staircase into the club. They were soft. “I hope so.“
“Wh—where will you go?“
There was a small sound, the click of tongue against soft palate as it found its speech. “Damen's brother has a few clubs in Delfeur. At least one of them could use another dancer.“
“Oh,“ Berenger repeated. His nod was instinctive, barely felt in his own body. He said, on the fly, “I was thinking of going back to Varenne. Not that there's much for me there now, but at least it's somewhere I—“
“You don't have to, you know.“
The interruption was sharp. Catching even Ancel himself off guard perhaps, judging by the look that flicked over his face. In his lap, his fingers began to drum. His voice was clipped.
“We could work something out.“ He held Berenger's gaze, held the weight of their gaze. “Come up with another story of where you were. Get rid of your chief, get your job back. We could. You don't have to—“
The space between them was very loud, as the words trailed off. In it, Berenger could just grasp the imprint of the edge that had started to unravel Ancel's tone—something fierce, something fervent, the intent of wishful thinking rather than the cool logic he'd maintained through the previous days. And for a moment, one soaring moment, Berenger let himself wish too—
But it wouldn't ever be the same. Or, maybe, it would be exactly the same. Laurent would remove Audin and the rest of Regent's people, but what else would he do but replace them with his own. Perhaps he, Berenger, would even be one of them. He wouldn't be able to stop it—maybe Arles and its citizens, from the low echelons to high, with its delicate balance of turning wheels, couldn't handle it being stopped. But he wouldn't pretend he wasn't part of it. The force he'd dedicated his life to until now, it may have been a facade in some ways, but he'd respect what it stood for by keeping clean his own loyalty. When he'd served, he'd believed. He believed no longer.
In the end, there wasn't that much for him here either. Not besides work, even after all these years. Some colleagues he'd like to say goodbye to. Some informants he'd like to check back up on. The latter, at least, he might actually be able to do one day.
With a shake of his head, he said, only, “I don't think so.“
He'd also be able to say more, one day, at least to somebody. When his old career felt a little less like the remains of a surgical excision. Through their long hours of planning he'd shared a lot about the force, what they knew, how they worked, but not about himself. Not about his father or the other bright-faced recruits he'd trained alongside, or the fellows down at the station he'd exchange wry glances with during debriefings. He hadn't told his story, his true one, not Iike Ancel had done. But he could have imagined doing it one day.
Ancel blinked, eyes falling shut, and failing to open again. His hand stilled. For all he hadn't heard the stories, he knew enough of Berenger all the same.
Berenger looked down over the unmoving form filling the chair, the form that looked almost unnatural to be unmoving when it should have been swaying and twisting to a heard or unheard beat, defying gravity and desire in its untouchable grace. With another half-step he leant down and reached out, taking gentle grasp of the book between them. His hold on the cover overlapped with Ancel's, lingering over the familiar feel of skin slightly roughened by work and slightly uneven with layers of healed burns, fingers that he'd seen take a person's life and felt touch his body with pleasure. Those beautiful green eyes slipped back open at the contact.
“If,“ Berenger said, and his voice was quiet, and deep, “you're going to show the crowds in Akielos what you can do. Then, shouldn't you be practicing?“
Ancel stared. His lips parted.
And then he smiled, small but free, face crinkling with it, like he hadn't in a while.
“Would feel good to get back on the stage,“ he replied, and the hoarseness in his voice was like a song.
He let Berenger take the book from his hands, and set it on the desk with a scrap of pilfered paper to mark the page. Let Berenger trail three steps behind him as he descended the staircase down to the club floor, to that gutted hull of empty tables and unlit booths, where the walls echoed with the ghosts of lust and laughter and spilt wine. Led them through the staff door into the backstage, down the corridor to his dressing room, like he'd done all those weeks ago.
It was at his door that he paused. Turned, looked past his shoulder to where Berenger was still lingering a length behind. Stopped before the room they'd entered all those weeks ago, entered and become—this.
“You know,“ Ancel said, as a heartbeat passed, “I'm sure a club in Delfeur could use an extra man on security, too.“
Berenger breathed in, through the smell of the backstage of cigar smoke and performers' perfume. He replied, “Yeah?“
With a twist to the knob, Ancel cracked the door open, edged a half step inside. He raised an arm, reaching back, fingers unfurling. A beckon. An offer. “Yeah.“
The lights were warm, backstage at Black Light. They could, Berenger decided, feel them again one day. Maybe between mornings waking up with ridiculous radio dramas and afternoons exercising together or talking costume colours or playing rounds of cards that never got finished before they were distracted. Maybe after days practicing Akielon from old histories and new paperbacks, and nights on an unfamiliar floor. Maybe even alongside them all doing what they needed to do.
“Okay,“ he said. And it meant everything.
He took Ancel's hand.
And there we are! Thank you, again, to everyone for joining me on this tale. I have all the love for the readers/kudosers/commenters, as well as for my artist, beta, and mods of the reverse bang event that brought this together.
Creating this world of modern/historical Vere was a lot of fun and had a lot of interesting freedom to play around with. My main feel for the era was the great depression, and specifically 1930s Chicago under the control of Al Capone. Basically the time of the big organised crime gangs during prohibition, although I decided that prohibition itself as a concept was too America-specific to take into Vere. Dockland stalked by the Tallow Man, however, was also inspired by London's Whitechapel in the time that Jack the Ripper was at large. And meanwhile pole dancing wasn't a thing that actually developed until the mid to late 20st century. So, this story is really a mash of multiple inspirations from different times and places, put together to form Vere.
And a few more final notes on the story, the history of Queen Damalis is something I like to do in AUs where Damen doesn't go through the events of canon, worldbuilding in another way that Akielos ended slavery. 'Secret and Bold' being the motto of Vere was a piece of lore on the interactive Captive Prince map. This is now sadly down, but the text has been saved by the interpid hasensalat on a tumblr masterpost here.
I also have a visual glossary masterpost of all pole moves in the story on tumblr here, along with some bonus pics.
Aaand that's about all I have to say! Ancel's hot, and so is pole dancing. I bad thee farewell at the end of this tale. /fin