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never felt inadequate a day in my life

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Greenmantle set his heart on Piper only moments after he set his eyes on Piper. She wore green satin from top to toe – or, more accurately: from neck to knee – or, more enticingly: from an alluringly low scoop beneath the neck to a reckless sky-high slit above the knee – or, more simply: Piper wore green satin, and her back rested carelessly against a magnificently gilded mirror-wall that soared up to the vast concave ceiling of the opera lobby.

A heaving, glittering crowd of opera-goers swarmed between the two of them. Before the combined might of Greenmantle’s dazzling reputation and Greenmantle’s charming smile, the path to Piper was effortlessly parted.

Greenmantle said easily, “I don’t believe you’ve had the honor. Greenmantle. Colin Greenmantle. And you, of course, are Piper. And spectacular. Spectacular Piper, it is a pleasure.”

Piper regarded him with the lively curiosity of an ice-slabbed trout. Her hair was pulled up into a ponytail that swung down behind her like a sleek hank of rope, as yellow as butter, yellow as sunshine, yellow as a hazard warning. “Creepy,” she replied. “Are you aware your cummerbund is inside out?”

So it was. “So it is,” said Greenmantle, and did nothing to fix it. “Do you find yourself impelled to tousle me further? You’re more than welcome to ruffle my hair, I’m assured it’s a very rakish look. Would you care to try?”

“Not at all,” Piper said, and plucked a champagne flute from a passing tray.

Greenmantle, who had inclined his head towards her, removed it from its incline. Piper was gazing into the bubbling depths of her champagne as though its very existence underwhelmed her. At such an early stage, Greenmantle was not yet to know that everything underwhelmed Piper; that Piper suffered, in fact, from a chronic lack of whelm. He began, “Do you suppose—”

“Oh, don’t you start,” Piper said, with sudden vehemence. “I’m sick of this place. I’m sick of all these men. I’m sick of all of it. Everything. Don’t bore me.”

Greenmantle told her, “I’m congenitally incapable of boring anyone.”

Far above them, a tremendous chandelier was suspended. It dripped with crystalline excess. Its arms were great undulating affairs that spoked out from the golden central hub; its candles were piled five to an arm, their firelight rich and flickering. All throughout the swarm of the crowd, light winked like diamonds from mirrors and ornaments and diamonds; diamonds winked like light from necks and earlobes and cufflinks and all sorts of places they didn’t need to be, but nevertheless were.

“Prove it,” Piper said carelessly, and dropped her champagne flute. It shattered with a sophisticated tinkle; she took a dainty step over its glittering remains and accepted his arm.

 

+++

 

The concept of delayed gratification was familiar to Greenmantle in the way that canned vegetables were familiar: something poor people had to convince themselves they enjoyed when they couldn’t afford the superior alternative – that being instant gratification, or alternatively carrots still muddy with the dirt of their fields, still piquant with a waft of that shitty fertilizer aroma. When Greenmantle wanted something, he took steps to obtain it, and then he got it.

He wanted Piper. He took steps to obtain her.

In an unprecedented twist, Piper made it remarkably clear that she had no wish to be obtained.

 

+++

 

Later, later, later than late, they walked together along the broad curve of the harborside.

“Almost romantic,” said Greenmantle, “if you like that sort of thing. Gull shit and dock tar and rotted fish. Can I see you again?” It was only a formality to ask, because of course he would be seeing her again, because of course she would want to. His tuxedo was perfect. His manner was charming. He was Colin Greenmantle.

“Maybe,” said Piper. She lifted one shoulder, then let it fall. It didn’t seem as though she meant for it to fall. It seemed as though she had grown bored of having it raised. It was a lovely shoulder, and Greenmantle moved his arm around her so that he might cup it in his hand and tug her close against his side. “Smooth,” said Piper, from close against his side. “God, whatever. I guess you can see me again. You can see me if you convince me it’s worth it.”

Suave, suave, suave: Greenmantle slid his hand down from her lovely shoulder to her equally lovely waist instead, and dipped her backwards into a kiss. Piper permitted herself to be dipped, and permitted herself to be kissed, and clutched at his tuxedo sleeve in a way which almost certainly expressed surging passion rather than a lack of a balance but which, even if it did express a lack of balance, nevertheless bore so close a resemblance to surging passion that any passersby who happened to witness the scene would surely see no more and no less than two beautiful young people in the throes of their young and beautiful love.

“I said convince me,” said Piper, when Greenmantle at last drew back, “not kiss me.”

“I was rather counting on the kiss to convince you,” Greenmantle said, and flashed her his most winning smile. It won him nothing. Piper exhaled through her teeth and walked off ahead of him, her ponytail swinging behind her like the pendulum of a grandfather clock. A sleek blonde grandfather clock. Nothing like a grandfather clock, except for the unstoppably regular tick-tock of her heels against the sidewalk.

He caught her up. “You’re a very beautiful woman,” he said.

“Sure, tell me something I don’t know,” said Piper, and kept walking.

“I was about to follow that up with the observation that I myself am a very handsome man,” said Greenmantle, “but since you want to hear something you don’t know, I won’t say that. I’ll say something else. Because I’m sure you’re entirely aware of the fact I’m a very handsome man, as it’s a very easy fact to know. Very obvious. You could hardly miss it. I’m sure it’s been on your mind these last few hours.”

Streetlight shimmered on the dark, night-time water of the bay in greasy smears. Piper stopped walking. “Is that a dead seagull?” It was a very dead seagull. “Gross. I don’t want to look at that. Get it out the way.”

Greenmantle kicked it obligingly aside. There was a damp thump as it tumbled down the embankment, and a splash as it hit the water, and he said, “You’re a very beautiful woman, and I’m a very handsome man, and were we to date, we would bring a crushing sense of inadequacy to all those who saw us together.”

Piper scoffed. “Like I need you for that. I make people feel inadequate all on my own.”

“I’ve never felt inadequate a day in my life,” Greenmantle said.

“Oh, twinsies,” Piper said. She looked pensively out across the blank stretch of water. The city bridge was sketched in colossal silhouette against the sunset sky. “All right, then,” she said. “Impress me. Do your best. Your worst. Whatever. And if the next thing out your mouth is some wiseass remark about how they’re the same thing, I’m calling it off right now.”

Greenmantle shut his mouth.

 

+++

 

Piper called his cell. “You got them in here, you get them out,” she said, when he answered.

“I am very well,” said Greenmantle, “I am enviably well, in fact, and thank you very much for asking. Can’t they get themselves out?”

“Obviously not. They’re unconscious. Couldn’t you have got rid of them while I was in the shower?”

Greenmantle was rather gratified that Piper supposed him – correctly, of course – to be the sort of man who could disappear unconscious bodies from someone else’s apartment within the duration of a shower. “Was I to know when you were in the shower?”

“They were waiting here when I came home from my hot yoga class.” Piper was snappishly impatient. “I told you I was going to hot yoga. No duh, I was going to take a shower after dealing with them. What else would I do? Sit here sweating? Keep up, Colin. Engage your brain.”

Greenmantle’s eyebrows spiked for dramatic effect; although he was his only audience, he was nevertheless a very appreciative audience. “Engage my brain in speculating about how and when and where and for how long you take your showers? Piper. Piper. You had only to ask.”

Something at her end of the line emitted an electronic beep. “They’re just lying there. Getting in my way. I thought one of them was going to wake up so I kicked his head. And now he is not waking up.”

“I commend you on your practicality,” said Greenmantle. “Also, just so you know, I’m speculating about you in the shower. Damn. Goddamn. You’re very nubile. Nubile and sudsy.”

“Sudsy,” said Piper. Another electronic beep, and the sound of something liquid.

“Sudsy,” Greenmantle confirmed. He spun his desk chair around and propped his feet up in the windowsill so that the burgundy soles of his socks announced themselves to the world. The world’s lack of response indicated speechless awe. “What did you do to those men, anyway? Just to get us on the same page here, you understand. Catch me up to speed. A hit of the old four one one.”

Piper said, “I’ve been taking a women’s kick-boxing class.”

The amount of sweat and grunting and nearly-naked grappling involved in the range of intriguing mental images this provoked was probably unrealistic, but Greenmantle’s libido was as phenomenally powerful and talented as the rest of Greenmantle, and was consequently inhibited just as minimally by the constraints of realism.

“And I pepper-sprayed them,” Piper continued. “One of them smacked his head on the counter. That’s the one that hasn’t moved. I kickboxed the other one and now I’m kickboxing him again whenever he tries to move.”

“Kickboxed into oblivion,” said Greenmantle. “I like that.” He did.

Piper was drinking. “Neither of them fought back,” she remarked, at length.

“That’s because they work for Nescafé,” Greenmantle replied. “They were only there to install an espresso machine, and yet you went ahead and kickboxed them into oblivion.”

“Hm,” said Piper. It was hard to tell if she was disappointed or aggrieved or simply bored. Such was generally the case with Piper: a creature of ineffable ennui. “I thought you must have sent them to kidnap me. Something like that. Kidnap me and install an espresso machine.” Her new espresso machine bleeped again. “I don’t like the hazelnut flavor,” she told Greenmantle. “I’m going to try vanilla next. But I like the packets they come in.”

“Those little capsules. Pods. Coffee pods. Doesn’t coffee grow in pods in the wild? In Africa? Wherever it is that coffee grows?”

“Brazil,” said Piper.

“Brazil,” said Greenmantle. “The circle of life. From pods the coffee came, to pods the coffee shall return.” The sunshine was glorious above the city’s rooftops. His burgundy socks were glorious in the sunshine. “Listen,” Greenmantle said, “Piper, listen. Darling. Angel. My heart, my one and only. Come over to my place and I’ll have someone get rid of those men while you’re out.”

Piper was drinking, and keeping him waiting as she did so. “There are stains,” she said, at last. “Blood. Whatever. The carpets in the living room need deep-conditioning.”

“I’ll see to it,” said Greenmantle. “You can show me your kickboxing moves while you’re here, how about it?”

“You’ll get to see them if you piss me off,” said Piper.

“Is that a maybe?”

“It’s a definite,” she said. “Vanilla is nice, I like this one. I’m going to finish my espresso and then I’ll leave. You should send a car for me,” Piper told him, and ended the call.

More gratifying still that she supposed him – again correctly, of course correctly – to be the sort of man who could wield absolute command over private transport within the duration of a an espresso; and Greenmantle did as Piper directed, the rousing warmth of self-approbation in his heart.

 

+++

 

“What is it you do for a living?” said Greenmantle.

The tines of Piper’s fork impaled the yolk of Piper’s poached egg. Its yellow innards disgorged across her salad. The wall at Greenmantle’s back consisted wholly of a single vast plate-glass window, and across their brunch table Piper was listless and lovely in the daylight that flooded in. “This and that,” she replied. “I know you only asked me because you want me to ask you, but I’m not going to.”

She was quite right. Greenmantle drummed his spoon restlessly against the rim of his bowl of gazpacho. “I’m in the process of obtaining an eighteenth-century oak table,” he offered. “I had a man killed for it in Hamburg yesterday. Yesterday? Maybe the day before. Timezones, timezones.”

Piper did not react with an intake of horrified breath, and look up at him as though she saw him now in a whole new light; Piper did not hold out for moments – long, suspenseful moments – before at last her fascination won her over and she leaned in with blue eyes wide to ask, in a voice of wonder, if this was the sort of thing he did always. Piper jabbed her fork resentfully into her poached egg, and said, “I prefer mahogany.”

Greenmantle persisted. “The trick is to get the right kind of asshole for the job. You want one who’s going to send proof you can trust, but not proof that’s going to turn your stomach when you open it over the morning’s wholegrain. This morning’s wholegrain. Today’s was a very unpleasant business,” he said, “a very splattery business.”

“Sucks for you,” said Piper. “If it’s such a bummer, maybe you should quit killing people. Just a thought.” Her salad was an airy confection, fashioned primarily from the sprouted tops of broccoli. She snapped a stem in half and dropped the sprouting end between her teeth.

Greenmantle’s spoon continued to drum. “The item isn’t en route yet, though. My contact said, take out the inheritor and you’ll be fine. You’ll be golden. But here I am with the inheritor taken out, and am I fine? Am I golden? Am I in possession of an eighteenth-century oak table with hand-turned legs and an inexplicable history of deaths in the families of those associated with it?”

Piper said, “Do you need a piss? If you need a piss, go take a piss. Else quit fidgeting.”

Greenmantle’s spoon ceased drumming. Instead he began to bounce his knee beneath the table, out of Piper’s sight. The urge to move was always in him: he could be still no more than he could be unexceptional; he could be still no more than his presence could be any less than perpetually delightful.

As long as Piper wasn’t speaking, she gave very little sign that she found his presence anything other than exactly that. She was eating; Greenmantle acquiesced to join her.

 

+++

 

“Look at this,” Piper told him.

“Oh, Christ,” Greenmantle said, looking. “Is that real? Really real? What an infinitely ghoulish species we are.”

Piper swiped at the screen of her smartphone. The repulsive image disappeared; another equally repulsive image took its place. “I can’t decide,” she said. “One comes with a certificate of authenticity, but one still has the eyeballs.”

“Not after all this time, it doesn’t. They’ll be glass,” said Greenmantle, “or plastic. Or carved bone. How old are those things purporting to be?”

Piper tapped at her phone for a minute or two. She had kicked off her heels when they got in the cab, and she sat against his side with her feet tucked beneath her as the city’s night passed by outside. The lights were slick and glistening in the rain; the rain was dazzling and golden with the lights, and it looked expensive. “Victorian,” she said at last. Her face was eerie-pale in the glow of her smartphone. “You could get them for me, couldn’t you?”

Greenmantle’s desire to show off warred with Greenmantle’s desire to not wake up to such macabre creations propped atop Piper’s vanity table every time he slept over at her place. He stalled, and asked, “How did you find them?”

Piper had pulled up another image. This one had more detail. Greenmantle felt vaguely nauseous. “I did a Google search for shrunken heads. What about this one? Do you think they smell? You’re the historian, do your history thing. What the hell is it – pickling?”

“Peel the skull, pickle the flesh, decorate according to your whims.” The cab swerved at a corner and a spray of water crashed up, rinsed away from the windows at once by the ceaseless hammer of the rain. The arm not draped about Piper was draped along the window, and the fingers of that arm were drumming very rapidly on the cab’s leatherette interior. “I can get them,” Greenmantle said at last. “Both of them? All of them?”

“Just this one,” said Piper. She was still looking at it. Even the thumbnail image gave Greenmantle the creeps.

With any luck, she’d tire of it before it even arrived. It wouldn’t be the first time: even boredom bored Piper, and her intolerance seemed more all-encompassing by the day.

 

+++

 

Far, far below, the glitter and gossip of the gala event spilled out through the vast main doors of the mansion and onto the grand slope of its front courtyard. The courtyard was immaculately and geometrically maintained. Piper took another olive from her buffet plate and flicked it from the balcony, and guests swarmed through the fussy lines of the courtyard’s hedges, unwittingly risking olive-based aerial bombardment at any moment. “I don’t think it’s so much to ask for,” Piper said, in petulant response to nothing at all. “I only want what any woman wants. Ethically sourced diamonds. Independence. A voodoo doll.”

Greenmantle made a pistol from forefinger and thumb. “You would not believe the dirt I have on some of these people,” he told Piper, sighting down it. “That guy? You see that guy? Red velveteen tux jacket – and I mean, really, red velveteen tux jacket – he’s been fucking his mother-in-law for years. No lie. Not one word of a lie.”

“But a real one,” Piper said. She was still on about the voodoo doll, so the finger-gun was reholstered for now. “One that works. None of that dime store shit.”

Greenmantle laughed. After a moment, so did Piper. It was a mean little laugh, but it was more than merited by the thought of dime store anything.

“You leave your hair clogged in my shower every time you stay over,” Piper added. She swatted him carelessly on the arm. “I already have everything I’d need. I’m good to go.”

 

+++

 

The presence of Piper’s shoes inside the doorway of his apartment suggested the presence of the rest of Piper inside his apartment. Greenmantle shucked his shoes and his jacket; after a moment’s reflection, he shucked the belt of his pants as well.

The presence further down the hallway of Piper’s dress confirmed the presence of Piper. The presence of Piper’s stockings, Piper’s brassiere, and a silken scrap he took for either Piper’s underwear or Piper’s luxe-brand handkerchief confirmed the currently unclothed status of Piper. Each item was cast aside with careless abandon, scattered piece by piece. Greenmantle discarded the rest of his clothes in similarly reckless fashion and bounded optimistically onwards.

The apartment was not at all as Greenmantle had left it. “Piper!”

Piper called back, “I’m in the bath.”

“So you are,” said Greenmantle, for so she was. A perfumed gust of steam billowed out as he flung back the bathroom door. “Why is there sand all over the place?” he asked.

“I’m moving in,” Piper told him, which explained the amount of yoga equipment stacked beneath the breakfast bar. A wet flannel lay across her eyes. Bubbles foamed up and up and up above the rim of the claw-footed tub. “This place was stressing me out. I got it done while you were out.”

Mi casa es su casa,” said Greenmantle, “of course. Is this done in the sense of castrated or done in the sense of covered with sand, by the way? Just asking. And is this why the living room is full of rakes?”

Piper scoffed. “Full of rakes. There’s one rake.”

“There are two rakes,” said Greenmantle, “and each of them is arranged at a rather jaunty angle across the sand which rests where once rested my off-white Persian rug. ‘Once’ as in ‘this morning’, if we’re getting into specifics.”

“Two rakes, whatever.” A languid hand raised itself from the rim of the tub and flopped back down. “What is your damage with rakes, Colin? No, don’t tell me. I don’t care. It’s very zen.”

“The rakes?” said Greenmantle.

“All of it,” said Piper. “Shut the door, will you? You’re letting out the heat.”

Greenmantle shut the door. Then he lounged provocatively against it and waited for Piper to find herself provoked.

“I know you have a dick,” Piper said. “It’s a very nice dick. Well done. Now go put it away, I’m having a bath.”

The wet flannel still lay across Piper’s eyes. There was no point in asking how she knew. She was Piper, after all; she knew most things. “I’m going to assume you sensed the raw power of my unfettered masculinity,” Greenmantle told her.

“Assume what you like,” said Piper. “Go fetter your masculinity.”

 

+++

 

Piper didn’t come when Greenmantle called, nor when he called again, so he heaved himself up from the sumptuous depths of the couch and went to find her.

“Thirty-one,” said Piper, once found. She was in their bedroom with all the windows open, engaged in bicep curls with a set of very dinky weights. The mid-morning wonders of Boston’s rooftops twinkled merrily behind her in the sunshine. “Thirty-two. You look better in briefs. What do you want?”

“Better in briefs, but fantastic in everything,” Greenmantle declared, and deposited himself and his boxer shorts and his laptop onto the edge of the bed. “Here, stop toning for a minute and come look at this.”

“Thirty-three,” Piper said, with accompanying bicep curl. Then she set her weights down. “All right. But I’m going to have to start over now, so thanks a lot.”

The mattress dipped as she sat behind him. She wore a neon pink sports bra and running shorts; there was a lot of Piper on display, and most of it was now pressed against his back. “Aren’t you sweaty,” Greenmantle said, cheerfully.

“Go to hell,” said Piper. She peered in across his shoulder. “What kind of browser are you using? I’ve never seen that before.”

“A secret browser. A crime browser, for crime. What does it matter? Here,” said Greenmantle, “take a peek at this. Feast your eyes on this. Check it out. If I send a blank email to this guy, then the dominoes start to fall.”

An exhaust-fume-smelling breeze was drifting in through the open windows. Flyaway blonde strands wafted against his cheek until Piper tucked them back, and she said, “Cut to the point already, why don’t you?”

“The guy is some cheap asshole with no qualms. The guy is a qualm-free zone. The dominoes,” said Greenmantle, and balanced the laptop with one hand as, with the other, he began to check off the list, “include a civil-service job, one, the loss of; associated health care benefits, various, the loss of; assisted hospice bed, one, the loss of; the gummy old woman in current occupation of that bed, one, the presumable loss of—”

“Kids?” said Piper.

“Two,” said Greenmantle. “Dominoes, both of them. They’ll last a week or two in public school and then one will be found unmistakably implicated in a hit-and-run in the dodgiest and druggiest side of town, and the other will be found smeared on the fender of that same hit-and-run. Almost a shame. Too bad their dad’s an asshole.”

Piper’s arm had found its way around his waist. It was still a slightly sweaty arm, but Greenmantle didn’t mind. “Who is it?” she asked.

“Some useless Texan.” He shrugged a shoulder – not the one that Piper’s chin now rested on. “I fear it will be a very messy business when all’s said and done and ruined forever.”

“Hm,” said Piper. She said it directly into his ear, and a frisson of exquisite anticipation shivered through him. “You’re a sick fuck. Let me do it.”

The blank email was there for her already, cued to send. “Don’t forget we’re going to dinner tonight,” Greenmantle said, watching the cursor make its way across the screen.

“Not if you haven’t booked a table yet. Did you book a table yet? I keep telling you to book.” Her arm was still around his waist. He held the laptop steady. She hovered the cursor, and said, “Like this?”

“Like that,” Greenmantle agreed. “As though I need to book. Please. Next you’ll be saying I need to introduce myself to people. I’m Colin Greenmantle. The one and only. The Greenmantle experience. The double Greenmantle experience, with your unspeakably radiant presence on my arm. They’ll be asking us to take a table.”

The email was sent. He shut the laptop and set it very hastily aside, for Piper’s hands had already started to roam. “Fine,” she said. “Schmooze us a table. But make it a later one.”

Megalomania turned Piper on. Not Greenmantle’s, unfortunately. Just her own.

 

+++

 

The engagement ring he bought her had belonged to a Medici: one of the less famous and less fortunate ones, excised from the history books as early as from life. He had it delivered to the address of their vacation home in the Midi-Pyrénées, to which it arrived some few days after they did, within a spherical cocoon of bubble-wrap that Greenmantle set about with a sleek Japanese kitchen knife.

Beside him, Piper was indolent in the sun that streamed through the open shutters. She wore only a large T-shirt; her bare feet were propped atop the mosaic-tiled coffee table, and close to eighty percent of her face was occupied by the darkly enigmatic sheen of her sunglasses. “I’m chilling a smoothie next door,” she had told Greenmantle, to spur his haste. “Flax seed and sweet potato. I have to drink it before midday, so hurry up.”

The ring was freed from its swaddling plastic confines. Greenmantle tossed the knife aside and got down on one knee, and said, “Would you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”

“No,” said Piper. She pushed up her shades and looked down at him. “But I’ll do you the honor of letting you become my husband. I already proposed to you, dumbass. Weeks ago. Did you forget?”

“I’m marking the occasion,” Greenmantle told her. “It’s very romantic to mark the occasion. You see here, this catch – if you flip it—” he flipped it, “—that’s a poison well. That’s not particularly romantic, but it is fascinating. Imagine how many Italian bureaucrats weren’t dead until this ring came into their lives.”

Piper’s shades continued their upward migration and settled atop her head. Her T-shirt fell away from the perfect flank of her bare thigh as she sat forwards. “Let me see that,” she said. “Is it empty? Why is it empty?”

Greenmantle shuffled obligingly nearer. Discarded bubble-wrap exploded beneath his weight. “I ask purely in the spirit of intellectual discovery, but how exactly do you suggest I should have smuggled a Renaissance-era antique stuffed to the brim with poison through Customs and Exports?”

“I don’t. That’s your problem.” Piper took the ring from him and slid it on her finger. “Seriously,” she said. Her mouth was drawn into a pout that would have been considerably more kissable if Greenmantle hadn’t suspected it would already taste thoroughly of flax seed and sweet potato. “What good is a poison well with no poison? This is just like you, Colin. You never think anything through.”

She was turning the ring this way and that. Her fingernails were painted opalescent. A perfect pearly sheen. Belched up by a gaseous oyster. Greenmantle asked, “Since when do you have anyone you want dead that I couldn’t have killed for you far more efficiently, anyway?”

“Since when did you start listening to cassette tapes of séance recordings for fun?” asked Piper. “No, don’t get up.” Her hand was on his head, flattening his charmingly boyish curls. She slid her feet from the coffee table; she resituated her feet on his shoulders, one on either side, which removed the perfect flank of her thigh from his eye-line and replaced it with another, equally perfect region of Piper. But all regions of Piper were perfect, apart from perhaps her moral conscience; that was sort of Piper’s thing.

“You might as well make yourself useful while you’re down there,” Piper told him: so he did.

 

+++

 

Piper wore the ring for the few weeks until they returned to Boston, and then it disappeared. She had tired of it, Greenmantle assumed, in the way that Piper tired of all things before long: gala openings at glittering new galleries, charity drives to provide hummus for the homeless, his own objectively splendid self.

They were married some few weeks later, without fuss and without ceremony but with a neo-pagan shaman.

You wouldn’t understand,” Piper replied, when Greenmantle enquired after the precise reason that a neo-pagan shaman was in attendance at their nuptials. Her voice held infinite condescension. The neo-pagan shaman held a stick. The stick was nearly as tall as the roof of the registrar’s office, gnarled and twisted with age, and he gripped it with both hands while staring grimly ahead. His beard was wild and red; his eyes were also wild and red.

“Is that a bong in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?” Greenmantle asked the neo-pagan shaman. “No, I’m kidding. Just kidding. Clearly a bong. Free love, peace out, et cetera et cetera.”

“God, you piss me off,” Piper said. “You can’t talk, anyway. You brought a hitman to our wedding.”

“He’s not a hitman,” said Greenmantle, “at least, not always. Are you, Fang?”

“I DJ at weekends,” Fang agreed.

“See,” said Greenmantle, “he DJs.”

“Dubstep,” continued Fang.

“Dubstep!” said Greenmantle.

“Shut up,” said Piper, “it’s our turn next. We’re going in.”

It was, and they were, and they did: and the marriage was witnessed, and the Greenmantles were wed.

They were in a cocktail bar that evening when Greenmantle saw the ring again. He saw it from the exit of the men’s restroom, and he saw it on Piper’s finger held above his drink. A glittering plume of something fell from the one into the other, and he reclaimed his seat beside her in a state of high intrigue. “What manner of side effects should I anticipate if I drink this, Mrs Greenmantle?”

“Ugh. Don’t remind me.” Piper shuddered. It was a theatrical shudder, and it would have injured the pride of any man whose pride was capable of sustaining injury: not Greenmantle. “God knows, anyway. Do I look like a scientist? I ordered it online.”

“Search term: poison,” Greenmantle said, typing at an invisible keyboard. “Tell me, Google, how best to kill my fiancé. Fiancé? Husband. Husband, what a loathsome word. I prefer inamorato.”

“Of course I wouldn’t kill you,” Piper said. “The apartment’s in your name. I just wanted something to put inside it. What’s a poison well without poison?”

“Safe?” Greenmantle suggested.

Useless,” Piper said. She was uncharacteristically vehement about it. She sat with her shins together in a perfect slanted line; her hair tumbled past her shoulders in immaculately choreographed disarray. “I’m not wearing a ring that’s almost enough to kill someone. Either it can kill someone or it can’t. Don’t fuck around about it. What use is almost?”

Greenmantle considered this. Then he set his drink aside, and made the safely informed decision to order a fresh one.

 

+++

 

“Zipper,” Piper said, as she pushed the apartment door shut behind them that night.

She scooped a long and shining swathe of hair aside to show Greenmantle the zipper in question, which ran from shoulderblades to tailbone down the silken center of a dress that shimmered like fish skin. The fish skin shed from Piper to crumple at her feet; she stepped out of it in her underwear, and kept going. “I got you something, by the way. Now that we’re together forever, no take-backsies.”

It reassured Greenmantle to hear aloud that Piper did, in fact, on some level, consider the joyous occasion of their matrimony an event worth celebrating. He followed her into their bedroom, unhooking his cufflinks as he went.

On the wall across from the foot of their bed hung a mirror where before had hung no mirror. It was a large mirror. It was a very large mirror indeed. Its frame was heavy and weathered and seemed, from the doorway, to be cast from antique bronze; from the doorway, only oblique slices from the unshaded windows could be seen in its reflection: the night’s sky, the night’s lights.

“A mirror! A mirror,” said Greenmantle, already striding over to it, “oh, Piper! What greater gift could you give me than the gift of myself? What better gift could anyone—”

But then he stopped. He stopped abruptly, and his reflection did too.

His reflection was handsome and healthy, square-shouldered and rich; his reflection wore a suit worth more both in terms of price and in terms of general value to the world than the vast majority of people. His reflection was surrounded by a black and seething horde of shapes a little like faces and a little like mist and a lot too amorphous to be either, though there was no mistaking that each one of them was screaming, and each of them was pressing nearer, nearer, swarming close enough about him that he could have drowned in the heaving, screaming mass of their incomprehensible forms.

Greenmantle said, “Piper?”

She pushed away from the doorway and came over to him, and for a little while they stood together before the mirror. It didn’t seem fussed about Piper. Piper didn’t seem fussed about it.

Haunted,” Piper said, at last. She kicked off one of her heels, and then the other. “Haunted, my ass. What a sucker. Why are you still dressed? Get undressed before I get bored.”

The uncountable maws within the mirror yawned wide, wider, fighting to be nearer to Greenmantle at the heart of their writhing storm. He said, “It doesn’t seem haunted to you?”

Piper said, “Seems to me like we’re lucky I kept the seller’s information. Lying asshole. You can do something about him. Fuck him over.” She had progressed to peeling off her stockings, and she flung them aside. “Don’t pretend you think it’s haunted just because you’re too lazy to do something about him,” Piper added, suddenly, intently. “And don’t pretend you won’t get off on fucking him over, either. I know what you’re like.”

Piper knew exactly what Greenmantle was like. He would enjoy fucking the seller over regardless of whether or not the mirror was haunted; the fact that the mirror was – quite obviously – extremely haunted would lessen his enjoyment of the process not at all.

That only Greenmantle could see the mirror’s spectral inhabitants was, presumably, a consequence of this hobby. He prodded experimentally at his conscience: its response was as negligible as if he had prodded at the very last faded traces of a weeks-old bruise, and he was satisfied by this. “Let’s just move it out of the bedroom, shall we?”

“It’s in the bedroom for a reason,” Piper said. She moved impatiently in front of him and began to yank his shirt buttons undone. “I’m your wife. I told you: I know what you like. You,” she said, pushing his dinner jacket from his shoulders, “you like you.”

“I am inordinately fond of me,” agreed Greenmantle, but it lacked something of the usual aplomb. Over her sleek blonde head he looked at the Greenmantle within the mirror, who looked back at the Greenmantle without the mirror, and one of them opened his mouth and screamed out a billowing cloud of flies. It was the first time in the full span of Greenmantle’s life that his own reflection had appeared anything other than phenomenally attractive; it was far, far more unsettling than any amount of shrieking ghosts could ever be.

He asked, “Don’t you think the glass is a little warped?”

“One more reason to fuck the seller over,” Piper said. “Does it matter? No, it doesn’t. Bzzt, that’s the buzzer, right answer. Obviously. You’re an adult man, take your own goddamn shoes off.”

At last, Greenmantle pried his gaze from the mirror. Piper had dealt with his belt and made a start on his pants before realizing in disgust the fact of his still-present shoes; he sat down on the bed and began to unlace them. “The elbow of your reflection has developed quite the bulge,” he told Piper, as he did so. “All thanks to that mirror. Quite the bulge.”

“My elbow is ideal in every way,” Piper said. She was correct, of course, though it hardly needed saying: she was Piper. Of course she was correct, and of course she was ideal in every way. “What the hell has gotten into you tonight, Colin? You’re such a chore.”

“I’m just saying,” said Greenmantle, as indeed he was. “Hardly the most flattering mirror conceivable. And don’t we deserve to be flattered? Don’t people as attractive as you and I deserve to appreciate the full extent of our splendor? Don’t you think we should move that mirror out of the bedroom?”

Piper yanked the curtains closed. “Suck it up, husband dearest. Pants off.”

Greenmantle obliged.