Nonus Olendus Annalis had never been much for politics. As a barber, he was, of course, a man well-acquainted with polite small talk, but the only time Catoni would stop rambling about how the city was better off without the Empire looking over their shoulders was when he was having a tooth extracted, and Atto couldn't resist shouting back at full volume about the Saxon threat. Olendus sometimes had to pause for a few minutes and wait for the argument to blow over in order to finish his work without accidentally slitting a client's throat. He had never taken sides in such matters himself; not only was it bad business, but he had never known Londinium when it was Rome's.
But now he wondered where Catoni was as he sorted through the ruins of his shop. Here was a razor, hopelessly bent, and there were all the bottles he'd kept his oils in, shattered on the floor. The walls were charred and sooty. What was the point of all this? The city had surrendered quickly enough.
He heard a noise behind him, and turned quickly to see a heavily-bearded man with a sword.
"I haven't got anything valuable," he told the man, in what he hoped was passable Saxon. "It's all gone already."
The barbarian grinned. He was missing quite a lot of teeth, Olendus noticed. "I'll be the judge of that," he said, in dreadfully-accented Latin.
The sensible thing to do would have been to give up and hide somewhere until the city's new rulers stopped letting their army loot, but it wasn't a sensible situation, and Olendus chose to listen to that little voice in his head that said, Haven't you done enough? and This place is mine! I will not be moved!
"I haven't got anything," he said loudly and slowly. The ruined razor wasn't much of a weapon next to the other man's sword, but it was what Olendus had, and he raised it.
The barbarian laughed. Olendus lunged at him, infuriated. "Go away! Leave me in peace!" he shouted. He managed, somehow, to grab the man's beard, and, with some difficulty, sawed through the greasy hair, cutting a huge chunk off.
Later, he would wonder at the fact that the invader hadn't killed him for this offense, but Olendus could only shout after him triumphantly as the barbarian turned and fled. Was this some strange superstition that held sway outside the walls? Perhaps Olendus seemed mad enough to be dangerous even to an armed man. Whatever the reason, he had won this small victory.
He went by Oliver Fox nowadays, and after over fifteen hundred years of pulling teeth, letting blood, making wigs, and even, occasionally, cutting hair, he had dealt with much worse than a client having a strangely specific nervous breakdown over the telephone.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Hopper," he said, "but I just haven't got time on Thursday. We're fully booked."
"You don't understand!" said Alan Bloody Hopper. His stage name was Puck Selby, he was... relatively deep, for a pop singer, and he was a goddamned nuisance. "This could make or break my entire career! My life is in your hands!"
Oliver rubbed his forehead. Such drama. "Sherri's got an open spot Friday morning," he said, paging through the book. He ignored Sherri shaking her head vigorously. "She'd be happy to take care of you! How about --"
"No," said his terrible, mad client. "It has to be you, and it has to be Thursday."
"Mr. Hopper," said Oliver, "there is a finite amount of time in the day. If you had only called ahead --"
"Fine," came the voice from the telephone, sounding almost on the verge of tears. Oliver pulled the phone away from his ear before the inevitable deafening slam.
He passed the receiver back to Sherri, who had been looking on in fascinated horror. "What crawled up his bum and died?" she asked. "And what's wrong with me, anyway? I can take care of hiding his precious grey hairs just as good as you can. It's my salon too."
"Oh, don't take it personally," said Oliver, "you know he does that every six months. He'll call back in about thirty--"
The phone rang.
"Or sooner," said Oliver. "You'd better get that. I've got an appointment."
Sherri glared at him. "Traitor," she said. She took a deep breath, put on an artificial smile, and picked up the phone. "A Cut Above the Rest Salon, how may I help you?" she said chirpily. "Oh! Oh, yes, of course!" She caught his eye, and rolled her eyes, not losing her aggressively cheerful tone. "No, he's very busy, can I help you? ...Certainly!"
Satisfied that Hopper's tantrum was over, Oliver went to see to their new client. He was a handsome, sleek man with dark brown hair, extremely well-fitting trousers, and a peacock blue ascot. An ascot. When was the last time he'd seen one of those? Everything old was new again. "I do apologize for the delay, Mr. Knight," he said. "We have you down for a custom color treatment today, so why don't you tell me what you were considering?"
"Please," said the other man, smiling easily. "Call me Victor. And I know exactly what I want."
Sometimes, Alfher didn't think he could really be five hundred and fifty years old. It must have been a dream, he thought, to have lived so long. Or perhaps this strange world was the dream, and someday he would wake up to find he had dozed off in his old age and dreamed of eternal youth.
It was strange to find himself once more within the city walls, now rebuilt to ward off Vikings, but his job had stayed more or less the same over the centuries. Certainly, there was a little more beard-trimming now, a little less chin-shaving, a little more elaborate surgery than simple dental work, but at its heart it was the same, because, he found, people didn't really change much. And he was good at his job, mostly.
"Oh, what are you doing?" demanded Ealdgyth, turning her head suddenly to glare at him, and rather ruining the elaborate braid he had been in the middle of. "I ought to have my own servant to do this, I don't see why I have to come here and put up with smelly men," she said.
Her mother, who had wisely brought her sewing, cleared her throat. "Dear, do you want to look good for Cyneheard at the fair tomorrow or don't you?"
"It's not for Cyneheard!" she snarled, going red. "I could do better than him."
Her mother smiled serenely. "She's just turned thirteen, you know. They're all like that."
"All like what?" Ealdgyth demanded, as Alfher re-gathered the chunk of hair she had made him drop.
"Don't worry," said Alfher. "I'm used to it." He had had children of his own in the 6th century, and though they'd died old and he'd lost track of their descendants by now, he still missed them terribly sometimes. "Would you like anything today? I have a lovely red dye of my own devising, and a very good black dye." He only wished he could offer the lady golden hair, but the recipe called for saffron, and she certainly couldn't afford that -- nor could he afford to stock it. At any rate, red was for royalty, or it had been when he was young. Not that an ironmonger's wife was royalty, but her daughter certainly seemed to think so.
"Oh, I don't think my husband would approve --"
"Mother, come on, you should try it once," said Ealdgyth.
"Well. Well, I'll think about it."
"She should try it just once, shouldn't she?" Ealdgyth asked him. Alfher's estimation of the girl rose immensely.
"Oh, twice, at least," said Alfher, finishing off a braid. "To see which color you'd prefer."
Oliver couldn't quite decide, upon looking at him, whether his new client was a very trendy businessman or an actor with very bland taste in hair, but as it turned out he was a director.
"Yes, we're casting for a new production of Faust in the fall," said Victor, as Oliver washed his hair. "I'm looking forward to it. But honestly, most of these actors..." He tsked.
"What's wrong with them?" Oliver asked, blinking.
"Oh, they just haven't got a feel for the characters," said Victor, grumpily. "Anybody can play Faust as a simple audience stand-in, but they haven't got the right amount of intensity and obsessive devotion."
Victor's eyes were fiery and very slightly maddened, and Oliver could tell exactly which yardstick he'd been measuring intensity and obsessive devotion by. "Have you ever done Faust before, then?" he asked.
"I've been wanting to for ages," said Victor, "especially if I could somehow get away with a rewritten ending -- to make it more tragic, you know? It's sort of a cheat if everyone's not damned in the end. But for one reason or another I never get the chance. It looks like I've finally got my lucky break." He then launched into a lengthy treatise on the human condition and the inherent problems that came with genius, stopping only when the noise of the hairdryer made it impossible for him to hear himself speak.
Oliver was only half-listening; he'd heard it all before, and he was much more interested in getting the highlights just right – just the merest hint of red in Victor's rich brown hair. But he found that he liked Victor, for all his artsy nonsense. Even though Oliver didn't go to the theater nearly as often now that playwrights didn’t fill plays with stupid dick jokes for the groundlings (he had long ago accepted that he was the lowest common denominator) he appreciated the work people put into such artifice.
As Oliver worked, he could sense Victor becoming more confident and certain of his plans. He could cut and dye and spray hair as well as anybody, but the reason people came to Cut Above the Rest, and the reason Oliver was so good at his job, had more to do with his other gift, the one that came with his immortality -- because while scissors and dye and product could make people look better, he could make them feel better. More confident, more certain, happier, better... or worse, when it came to that. It was, Oliver thought, very likely how he'd survived that barbarian pillager all those centuries ago, and it had come in useful on countless other occasions between then and now.
By now, Oliver was well used to being awoken in the middle of the night. He was a barber-surgeon, and though he had to admit to himself that he didn't know what he was doing or how to fix people at all, they generally did seem to feel better when they left. It was a useful skill, but there were times he wished he'd been able to truly heal.
Still, if he could do some good, and get paid for his trouble, he was doing something right. Even when it meant somebody was pounding on his door in the dead of night, in desperate need of a surgeon. He rubbed his eyes, pulled on a robe, and stumbled out of his warm bed and into the cold shop.
He opened the door, and grimaced as light from a lantern nearly blinded him. "Yes?" he ventured.
"You have to help me," said a voice -- a woman's voice. He blinked, and the scene resolved itself, finally. There was nobody else about on the street, just this -- this woman. Oliver squinted at her. She didn't look ill, or at the very least, she didn't look nearly ill enough to be worth waking him up. And he wasn't even a doctor, so a lot of good he'd do all on his own, half asleep, working only by candlelight.
He had just about put the words together in his mind to tell her so, when she simply shoved her way into the barbershop.
"My good lady," he said, "I have no idea what you want, but --"
"Close the door! Lock it!" she snapped.
"This is still my shop, you know." he said. "Who are you, anyway?"
At this point, the woman straightened. "I am a frequent customer of yours, now would you please do something about my hair?" she demanded. "I'll be in so much trouble if he finds me and I don't want to have to change my name again for a long while."
It was this that made him stop fretting about how ridiculous this situation was, and stare at her, and, eventually, recognize her. She was a frequent customer of his -- in fact, he had always rather suspected her of being a whore.
To be fair, whoring was good honest work -- or it had been in Oliver's day, at least -- but things had got rather more touchy and complicated now. What with nobody giving a damn about sumptuary laws anymore, you didn't just know who somebody was on sight -- you had to actually speak to them. He was less comfortable with the not-knowing than he was with the actual fact of whoring, because if he asked she might be insulted, and it was probably a bad idea to insult a madwoman who had burst into one's barbershop in the dead of night for a trim.
On the other hand, he'd watched the city change hands enough times and weathered enough invasions that he was rather jaded by now. At least if she killed him it'd be new and surprising.
"I think, before I do anything, I'd like you to explain why you are in such urgent need of my services," he said. But he did close the door, because it was getting very cold.
"Because I need to look different," she said.
He stared. "...And?"
She sighed. "Because I need to look different, suitably different, and I need to act different, just for a little while, and you -- you change people. I've seen it."
"What do you mean, change?" he demanded. "I shave them, I cut their hair, I bleed them. I don't --"
"You're like me," she said. "Before you were here you were across the city, before the Plague --"
He did not want to talk about that. He had always moved on -- changed his surname, moved somewhere else, even vanished on a family if he thought he had to -- every thirty years or so. But it had been so horribly easy to do when your whole neighborhood had died and you were somehow the only one left. "So what? Lots of people --"
"And before that, a hundred years ago, you were somewhere else in the city. I remember faces," she said. "You're like me. You're good at your job and you're all the better for it because you can do... strange things. And right now I need that. So would you please do something about my hair, and if you can -- if you can make me as different as possible, I will find some way to pay you back, I swear it."
He was stunned, because he'd always suspected there was something -- something more he was doing for his clientele and his patients. People always said they felt much better after he'd bled them, which was so unusual even the doctors whose supervision he worked under had thought it remarkable. And there were others like him. Or at least, there was this one woman.
"Sit down," he said. "In the chair. You can pay me in information." She did.
"You've never met another one of us, have you?" she asked, turning her head to look back at him.
He moved her head gently. "Look forward." He ran his hands through her hair. "No, I haven't," he said. "How do you feel about red hair?"
"Ooh. D'you really think I've got the complexion for it?" she asked.
"Well, seeing as it's the dead of night and the light's terrible, I've no idea, but it'll certainly be... different," he said. Her natural color was a lovely deep brown. "So... I'm not the only one, then? You..." It sounded ridiculous. "You don't die either?"
"Not if I can help it," she said. "You're only the second other I've met, though."
"Really?" he asked, brushing her hair out. "Who else?"
"There's this painter in, oh, where was it, Venice, I think? I spent about eighty years there. He said he didn't even remember how long he'd been around, but he changes countries every three or four hundred years, because otherwise he goes a bit mad. He was a Spaniard originally, I think."
"A painter? Is he one of those famous ones?" Oliver had once helped a wealthy merchant and his wife ready themselves for a portrait painter. From the high-and-mighty way they were acting, he had wondered if they understood that the painter could just paint over the man's bald spot and forget to include his wife's pockmarks -- and certainly would, if they asked. But Oliver had appreciated the business nonetheless.
"I don't think you can get famous painting houses," said the woman, "but he's certainly welcome to try. How long have you been around, then? I'm four hundred and thirteen this year."
He paused, and considered this. "...Twelve hundred and forty-nine, I think."
"Does it get any less lonely?" she asked.
"Not really," he said. "Well. Apparently there's more than one of us, so... Why do you need hair dye so badly, anyway?"
She sighed. "One of my clients, I think he worked out that I'm -- that I'm whatever we are. And now he wants me to give him the secret of immortality. He wants it so badly it hurts whenever I'm in the same room, he's -- I can't change people like you, but I know what they want, and I can't help him, and I think he'll kill me if I don't help him, so..."
"Why didn't you just tell me that before?" She leaned back to glare at him. "Look forward! I'm brushing your hair," he said.
"'Good sir, please dye my hair for me, or tomorrow my maddened client will murder me for not telling him how to live forever, because as everyone knows that is what men pay whores to do for them.' Why would you have believed me?"
He had to concede the point. "Ah, well. Soon you'll be a redhead, lucky you. What's your name, anyway?"
"I change it every thirty years or so. But right now it's Tabitha," she said.
"I'm Oliver," he said. "And I never thought I'd be meeting anyone like me before. Thank you."
When she left, early that morning, she looked to be a whole new woman.
"Oliver," said Sherri, once he'd left Victor's dye to set. "There's... there's an American woman here to see you." She sounded disapproving and confused all at once. "She says she's an 'old friend'?"
"Oh, that's right!" said Oliver, cheerfully. "What did she say her name was?"
"You don't know your old friend's name?" Sherri asked, disbelievingly. "She said it was Venetia. I don't think that's a real name."
"She changes it more often than I do," he said.
"Sometimes you are so odd," said Sherri. "She looks sort of trampy, too," she added. "Are you certain she's --"
"Oliver!" said Venetia, cheerfully. "How have you been?" She looked well. Well, she looked like a fashion disaster, but Oliver did not judge. When the trumpets sounded at the end of the world, the pompadour, the pudding bowl, and the perm teased to within an inch of its life would all be equally ridiculous. But surely electric blue, neon green, and hot pink all on the same very small dress was unnecessary. And the most that could be said about her hair was that it was very... big.
"I'm doing all right," he said. "I've got a new client I've got to finish up with, though, you might as well get to the party without me."
"How do you two know each other, then?" Sherri asked, frowning.
"Oh, we go way back," said Venetia, waving a hand vaguely. "Where is he?"
"Where is who?" Oliver asked.
"The new client."
"How do you know it's a he?" he asked.
"Sweetie, with you it usually is," she said.
Sherri snorted. "She's got your number all right," she said.
"Shouldn't you be attending to Ms. Cross?" Oliver asked, rather pointedly.
"All right, all right," said Sherri, rolling her eyes.
Venetia looked after her, amused. "She seems a little overprotective," she said.
Oliver shrugged. "She's had a bit of a bad day. We have a mad client."
"Well, you can fix that, can't you?" she asked. "A little bit of laying-on-of-hands and he's all better, right?"
"Not this one," said Oliver. "With him I don't do that anymore. I think -- I think he might be addicted to it, or something. Can you get addicted to ...magic, or whatever?"
"You can probably get addicted to anything," said Venetia. "So what's he like?"
"Oh, he's just a little bit high-strung --"
"No, the new client, the one getting the highlights over there," said Venetia. "I think he likes you."
"Don't read my clients' minds," said Oliver. "It's not polite. ...Also, Venetia?"
"What's wrong with Venetia?" she asked.
"It's a bit much," he said.
"Oliver, I've spent the past thirty years just outside of Vegas. Trust me, there's no such thing as a bit much. Anyway, you should talk, look at Mr. McTightpants over there. He's wearing a cravat."
"It's an ascot," said Oliver.
"Whatever. I bet he owns a cravat, though."
"Some people look good in cravats," said Oliver. "I think they can be very tasteful with the right outfit."
"Besides which, pretty much anyone looks good once you've worked them over with your weird magic," said Venetia. "Which goes to show it's mostly about attitude. ...You know, he kinda reminds me of that guy you used to --"
"I'm going to go check on him now. I hope you don't mind waiting," said Oliver, briskly.
These were dark days for barbers. First, he'd had his surgeon's license taken from him -- not because of anything he had done, of course, but because now there were actual surgeons about. Oliver had had very little faith in the conventional medical wisdom of the last few centuries, and so it was a relief not to have ill patients anymore, but on the other hand, he knew he had a gift for comforting people even if he couldn't improve their health much.
And then there were the wigs. The massive, neck-straining wigs. At first Oliver had enjoyed designing ever-more outrageous hair, but it was beginning to be more a question of props and managing the weight of the wig than actual creativity.
The worst part, though, was that the damn wigs had made it much harder for him to recognize people -- after all, one huge powdered-white mass of curls looked much like any other. So when he thought his client's newest courtesan was strangely familiar, it was not until after he had shaved her head and sold her three (three!) of his best and most elaborate wigs that he realized why she seemed so familiar, and even then he was uncertain. Had that been the other immortal he'd met, so long ago? Or did she just have one of those faces?
But when she left, her arm around their mutual client, giggling at all his jokes and fanning herself delicately so that her face was covered, but not her ample cleavage... she'd left a card.
It was on rough paper, but printed, and said:
A Meetinge of the Extraordinarily Well-Preserved
may be attended in six months' time at the Tabard on 21 August, 1781.
Pray do not bring Guests. Arrive at dusk.
Oliver was sociable by nature, but his other nature, his strange supernatural gifts, made that... difficult. He'd had families before, and he had many friends, but friends always died and families had to be lied to and abandoned before they gave too much away. He wanted to be trusting, but he'd seen too much of the world to make that choice.
So in the end, it was loneliness that made him show up at the Tabard six months later.
It was a quiet night -- a Tuesday -- and Oliver wondered whether, as in a tale of intrigue, he had to give somebody some sort of password or secret sign that the invitation had failed to mention. He looked around. The first thing he noticed was that there were women here -- not the sort of women who were usually seen in pubs, either, but respectable women in sober dress. There were only thirty or so people, but half of them were women, and it was very strange to see so many of them in a pub at once. Mostly they were looking around nervously, as if worried somebody might recognize them.
Except for the one he did recognize, who was simultaneously the most fashionable lady in the pub and also the one who looked most at home there. She was wearing an auburn wig now -- not one of his, Oliver thought, disapprovingly. What had her name been? Tabitha. But she'd have changed it by now. He took a seat at a table with two other men.
"Are you here for the meeting?" asked one of the men. He was sharp-eyed and well-dressed, but his gentleman's attire was several seasons out of fashion and he was missing a few too many teeth.
"Yes?" Oliver asked. He looked to the other man, who seemed a much more straightforward sort of fellow -- a man in laborer's clothes. He had light brown skin -- perhaps he was from one of the colonies? What an odd crowd this was. "Are you?"
"Oh yes," said the laborer, and his accent was that of a Spaniard, Oliver thought. "The name's Hector. Well, it was Xihuitl, but no one can pronounce that anymore," he said, sadly.
"And you're -- we're all --"
"Surprisingly long-lived," said the false gentleman. "I'm Robert St. Clair to my friends -- which I am certain I may count you all as! But I go by other things now. In my profession, I have to change it often or keep moving."
"Your profession?" Oliver asked.
"Gambling," he said, and he obviously took great pride in it, but Oliver would not have admitted such a thing and been so proud of it. "What about you?"
"I make wigs," said Oliver. "...And cut hair, when there's hair to be cut."
Hector nodded. "Fine, steady jobs, both of them. I build things."
"For how long?" Oliver asked, curiously.
"Oh, two thousand years or so," he said. "In between the pox and the change in calendars, I'm afraid I don't recall exactly."
"And you?" Oliver asked St. Clair.
"Just a hundred or so years, old man," he said smugly, and when the courtesan who'd invited him climbed atop the bar and shouted at them all to pay attention to her, St. Clair leered at her. "Well that's not hard, is it? We were all staring anyway, eh, boys?"
The others around them laughed politely. Oliver had liked Tabitha a great deal, if only because she'd been the only other person he'd met like himself, but had to admit, he didn't see why the leader of this little gathering, whoever he was, had expected her, of all people, to be taken seriously.
"Settle down, all of you," she was saying. "Now, I've had a lot of names, and I've lived in a lot of cities, and I've met a lot of you before, but for now you may all refer to me as Portia. Now, I brought you here today, either because I knew you or because you knew one of the people I knew, because we're all long-lived, and many of us seem to have strange magic or powers or something beside, and I think we ought to know each other, and exchange information, and perhaps agree upon a code of conduct that we can all abide by."
There was a stir at the front -- somebody had asked a question, which Tabitha -- Portia, Oliver corrected himself -- had leaned down to hear.
She laughed. "This gentleman here would like to know where my husband is," she announced to the crowd. "This gentleman would not be much of a gentleman, in fact, if he truly believed I had a husband, for he has paid me for my services seventeen times this past two months. I will admit to you now that I have, in fact, never had a husband. The state of matrimony is generally viewed as incompatible with my profession, and my profession is not only my livelihood, but also, I suspect, my very life. Has anyone here gone entirely from one career to another, such that their current livelihood is not remotely like the one they started in? Speak up now, any man or woman here who has not wondered if perhaps our lives are linked to our labors, and that if we entered other professions we might wither and die like the rest of humanity!"
Oliver looked around the room, as many others were doing. There were a few quiet conversations being had, but everybody seemed to agree with Portia's assertion.
"Then I submit to you that my whoring is an honest and true profession, and that for the purposes of organizing this gathering and speaking at it, it is as good a qualification as your ironmongering, sir," she said, nodding at one man, "or your accounting," she added, nodding at another man, "or your tailoring, madam. Does anyone have any more stupid questions for me?" she asked. "Or may we start in upon the business you presumably all came here for -- to satisfy your curiosities and to meet your brothers and sisters in longevity?"
There were a few hecklers, but Portia chose to ignore them. She introduced Mikel Oroitz, the house painter, who told them tales of the beginning of the world -- or at least, that was how it seemed to Oliver -- for he said he'd grown up among people who had never even learned the use of metal, and that his job then had been to bring luck to the hunters of his village by coating the walls of caves with pictures of animals. There was a tall, dark-skinned farmer who claimed he had begun his life under the rule of the Pharaohs, and a weaver, and a miner, and a sailor, and a thief. The youngest there was a printer, a youth of two hundred and fifty years. A few called the Continent their home, but most had been British for a century or more. The sailor, though, told them of others like them he'd met in the Orient and even further afield, and Oliver wondered if somewhere on the other side of the world, they were having meetings like this in places he'd written off as travelers' tall tales.
He found himself in deep conversation with a shoemaker and a milliner -- one born in what was now France, the other originally Italian, both old enough to remember the days of the Roman Empire -- and while he knew the next morning would come too early, Saturdays being his busiest day, companionship after all these centuries was worth a little exhaustion.
Oliver had done a fine job with Victor's hair -- he looked fiendishly elegant, with new reddish highlights in his dark hair and all the confidence Oliver's magic could provide. Not that he'd needed it, but his clients deserved the fullest of full service.
But apparently some people couldn't appreciate a job well done.
"Oliver," said Venetia, pulling him aside after Victor left, "I really don't like him."
"What do you mean?" he asked, blinking.
"He's all wrong," she said. "He's -- there's something wrong with him, I always know."
"What does he want, then?" Oliver asked. She couldn't really read minds, not properly, but she could always tell what people wanted.
"He wants..." She hesitated. "Don't take this how you're absolutely definitely going to take this, please," she said. "He wants you."
"Well, you don't have to act so surprised," said Oliver, who was very pleased to hear this. It saved him a lot of time, knowing that.
She rolled her eyes. "I don't mean -- it's not sex. ...It's not just sex. Come on, Oliver, I can tell the difference between lust and -- and something else. If anyone can it's me. It's all very -- he wants a lot of things."
"He's got a lot going on, and I think he fancies himself an actor," said Oliver. "He's a director, but -- it's probably some weird method thing. The man's under a lot of stress."
"Oh, it's a method thing," said Venetia. "Didn't you say that about that Shakespearean idiot who couldn't get his thees and thous right but insisted on using them everywhere?"
"Well, that was a method thing," Oliver said. "I asked him about it and he --"
"And then there was the boyfriend who stole your car," she said. "You said that was a method thing too."
"He wasn't my boyfriend," Oliver protested.
"He wasn't even an actor!" she pointed out. "You said he did the lighting or something."
"Maybe it was method lighting," said Oliver. He had to admit he knew very little about modern theater, and lighting had sounded very complicated. "Anyway, don't worry about Victor, I can take care of myself, you know. Besides, Sherri and I have a very strict policy of not sleeping with clients. I would never break my own rules."
She snorted. "And by eerie coincidence, I have a policy of not cutting my clients' hair. Now come on, let's get to the party, we're going to miss all the gossip." She held the door for him, and they headed out into the brisk spring air.
"Never mind gossip," said Oliver, pulling his jacket on. "Have they found Mae yet?" Mae was one of the younger ones in their group, a soldier. She had gone missing about twenty years ago, but she was only about a hundred and forty, and the younger among the undying didn't really appreciate how lonely eternal life could get, and she might've just stopped coming to meetings.
"No word from her," said Venetia. "But Mikel and Deidre are opening a restaurant."
"...But he paints houses," said Oliver, stopping in his tracks. "And she's a dressmaker."
"Which is exactly why we have to go and talk them out of it," said Venetia, grabbing him and pulling him along. "No matter how pretty and deep and fucked-up your new client is."
"It's not like that!" Oliver insisted.
The new client's name was Ambrose, he claimed to be a poet, and by god he looked good in those breeches. Or out of them, actually.
Oliver decided he preferred Ambrose naked, now that he'd had a really thorough examination. Pushing him up against the wall in the back of the shop had been all well and good, and had often progressed to Oliver finding out just how skilled Ambrose was with his mouth, but here, in a proper bed, after a proper fuck, he was all flushed and sweaty and slightly dazed, and it was glorious.
And then his expression went from sweetly pleased to mildly panicky. "What time is it?" he demanded. "Where is my watch?" He arose from the bed and started rushing to put his clothes on.
"I believe you left it in your waistcoat pocket," Oliver said. He was in no mood to move, but the euphoria of the moment had started to drain away. Were they going to have this conversation again? Sometimes Oliver didn't know why he bothered anymore. "Have you some urgent poeting to do?" he asked, propping himself up on one elbow.
Ambrose was a surprisingly fast dresser, and Oliver wondered how many other people he'd done this with. Clearly not enough, considering how jumpy he was. But he was doing the buttons up on his shirt now, and soon he would be pulling on his boots and rushing away to some society engagement. "Supper. Family. Across town," he said brusquely.
"You can use the side exit if you --"
"Yes, thank you, good evening," said Ambrose, and then he was rushing down the stairs.
Oliver rolled his eyes. He had no illusions about what sort of man Ambrose was. In fact, Oliver was relatively certain that if he'd called Ambrose by his Christian name in public it would end rather badly for him. But it was a useful arrangement, for now. He was anxious about going to molly-houses, especially now that the Vere Street mess had been all over the papers. Not that Oliver's interest in buggery had ever been particularly acceptable, but at least for his first few centuries he'd been just fine as long as he'd never played the woman's part.
Well. Not that that was really particularly wonderful, on reflection, but it'd been safer for him. Besides, back then people had had real, proper things to worry about. Like plague, and which pope to follow, and... well, all right, actually, people had been stupid about a multitude of things as long as he'd been alive, and they probably always would be.
He wondered whether he ought to ask some of his older companions in immortality about this, but then he pictured that conversation -- "By the way, I was wondering, back at the dawn of time, who were you permitted to fuck?" It seemed like a wonderful conversation-killer.
Ugh. He shoved the thought violently aside, and rolled out of bed to tidy himself up and get dressed. He, too, had a supper, with family of sorts, although he was really just meeting a few of his compatriots. Portia would be there -- well, she'd changed her name again, to Calla, but she was still herself. She might appreciate his dilemma, at least. He sometimes worried about what people inevitably thought of him, being so well-acquainted with a fallen woman like her. But on the other hand, at the very least her presence in his life would allay suspicion about his illegal vices, and besides which, he liked her. She was very... straightforward, which was especially refreshing nowadays.
Somebody was knocking at the shop door. "We're closed!" he shouted, sighing and tying his cravat hurriedly. There was another knock. Oh for heaven's sake. "On my way!" he shouted. He heard the bell on the door ring, which meant that somebody had actually got in. Damn. He started to stumble downstairs, pulling on his coat as he went.
"There's no hurry!" called Calla, but he was already there.
"Did you pick the lock?" Oliver demanded.
"I made St. Clair teach me," said Calla. "You never know when it might be useful. Besides, now I can let myself in for emergency haircuts." She frowned at him. "...Did you not consider combing your hair before supper, or is looking like you've just been fucked really that fashionable nowadays?"
Oliver blushed. "It really is," he confirmed, but he grabbed a comb anyway, and tried to make himself look at least fashionably post-coital and not actually so.
"I never knew our respective employment had so much overlap," she said. "Who's the lucky customer you were helping to achieve fashion authenticity? I saw him sneak out the side. There's a man who knows his breeches."
"Ah. That's. That's the one who I mentioned," said Oliver. He concentrated on adjusting his cravat in the mirror, so he didn't have to look her in the eye. "Ambrose? Who I've sort of been hoping will come around to not being quite so much of a --"
"If he's a prick, he's always going to be a prick," she said. "I worry about you sometimes, you know. Those Vere Street blokes, you know, they were betrayed by their own. What if this Ambrose gets caught with somebody else and turns you in to save himself?"
"I read the papers too, you know," said Oliver. "Besides, not all of us have got another lover lined up in a couple of hours," he added.
"Oh, don't pretend you know anything about the business of whoring, Oliver," she said, tsking at him. "That's just what it is, a business. Now come on, we're going to miss supper with Mr. Oroitz."
They went off to supper, and he put aside Calla's worries for the evening, and for several months, in fact. He and Ambrose continued to have brief assignations disguised as appointments, consultations, and the like, and Ambrose continued to be his irritatingly fickle self. He was less ill-tempered lately, though, and even, sometimes, fond. Oliver supposed it was because, he claimed, he had a book of poems due to be published any day now.
"They are love-poems," said Ambrose proudly, on one of the days he was actually seeing Oliver for a haircut. He started to turn his head, and Oliver sensed he was angling for a recitation request. The shop was empty but for the two of them, but this seemed like a poor topic of conversation even in the semi-public of the front of the shop.
Oliver gently straightened his head. "If you keep moving, it will be uneven on the right side." There was no one else in the shop right now, and later, perhaps, would be a good time for ...physical exertions, but a poetry reading was a deeply terrible idea. Particularly because Oliver didn't want to start laughing with sharp scissors in his hands.
"Do you want to hear one?" Ambrose asked.
"Not just now, Mister Wyndham," said Oliver. Tact was key. Tact, and reminding Ambrose of his place, which was very much above and quite a distance from Oliver in the grand scheme of Society.
"Perhaps later?" Oh dear. Oliver could see in the mirror that the other man's eyes were all optimism and enthusiasm.
"Perhaps later," said Oliver, doing his very best to tamp down on that enthusiasm with the same strange power that he usually used to perk up underconfident clients. Ambrose had, throughout their acquaintance, alternated between keeping the proper distance in public, treating Oliver with mild contempt after the act, and pliant sweetness while in the midst of it. His sudden amiability today was off-putting and while there had been a time -- when Oliver was in his twenties, perhaps -- when he would have taken this as Ambrose being an indecisive idiot, or a manipulative arse, the world had long since changed and he could not quite trust anyone anymore, and changeable men like Ambrose were all he had some days.
His heart and his head both told him to put Ambrose off with no further explanation and damn the consequences. But Ambrose was so arrogant and so elegantly superior and Oliver knew that would all dissolve once he had his sweet pink mouth around Oliver's cock, and so after he was done with Ambrose's hair, he said "Well, Mr. Wyndham, is there anything more you require?"
"Oh yes," said Ambrose, smirking. "I think you have just the thing for me."
And so they retired to the back room, and Oliver had, in a fit of unforgivable idiocy, failed to check the lock on the door.
It was thus that a concerned young policeman, noticing the door had been left unlocked, saw that the shop was empty, let himself in, heard what he thought was a commotion in the next room, and walked in on rather a different scene than he had likely been expecting.
The three of them were speechless for one brief, dreadful, and, at least in Oliver's case, excruciatingly naked second, and then everything happened at once. Ambrose was shouting at the policeman, threatening to ruin him if he ever breathed a word of this to anybody, the policeman was stammering and indecisive, and all was chaos. Oliver pulled his trousers up, trying to maintain at least some dignity, and grabbed the copper by the lapels.
"What -- I -- get your hands off me!" the policeman snarled, grabbing Oliver's wrists.
"Please forget what you saw here," he said smoothly, politely. He tried to send as much calm into the policeman's mind as he could, and he saw the man relax, felt his fingers loosen their grip.
"But you know, I should really --"
"For god's sake, what are you doing to him?" demanded Ambrose.
Oliver didn't take his eyes off the copper. He'd never tried this before. "Everything is fine. You and I had a nice chat and you reminded me to lock the door, that's all." Calm, he thought, though his own heart was racing. Everything is fine. Everything will be fine. Everything will always have been just fine.
The copper nodded. "Yes. Yes. Everything is fine."
"Good," said Oliver. He realized he was holding every muscle in his body tense, and tried to relax a little. "And what will you do now?"
"Remind you to lock your door!" said the policeman, in a distantly chipper voice.
"Very good. I'll do that. Thank you, officer," said Oliver, slowly. He released the policeman, who, without another word, walked out of the room.
He turned silently to Ambrose, who could only gape at him. He didn't say anything until they heard the bell on the front door jingle.
"What -- what did you do to him?" Ambrose demanded.
"I've no idea, honestly," said Oliver, "I didn't even realize --"
"You stay away from me," snapped Ambrose. "Whatever you did to him, I --"
"Would you rather have been caught?" Oliver demanded.
"God willing, this shall be the last I ever see of you," said Ambrose, tying his cravat rather hastily, for he had removed it in case there should be any mess.
"Your cravat is very crooked," said Oliver. "It looks awful. Maybe you ought to --"
"I don't care!" snarled Ambrose.
"Well, that's a first," said Oliver, unfazed. "Look, I know that was... unexpected, but --"
"Unexpected?" he demanded. "Unexpected? Unnatural, more like. Even that's an understatement, when it comes to you." There was nothing but contempt in Ambrose's voice. "I don't know why I put up with your disgusting attentions for so long. Pity, perhaps." He attempted to straighten his cravat, then gave up and turned to leave.
And then Oliver did something he would come to regret, very much -- he grabbed Ambrose's shoulder and pulled him back. "No," he said.
"What do you mean, no?" Ambrose asked. "This is entirely non-negotiable."
Oliver pushed him back with one hand on his chest. "I mean that you're a useless, contemptuous, soulless mayfly of a man, and if anyone remembers you in two hundred years, it will be me and no one else," he snarled, looking Ambrose straight in the eye. "And when you die, because you will die, no one will ever have known you truly and no one will like you much at all, because you're a self-absorbed, petty nitwit and even your poems stink of desperation and pretension and at the heart of it all, fear. For that is all you are, sir; a man held together by fear and whatever clothes are in fashion this season." And he watched Ambrose go from enraged to terrified in less than a minute's time. Oliver wondered, idly, just how long it would take to reduce this idiot to a nervous wreck.
It would not take long at all. An hour, perhaps. Less, maybe. Oliver could feel the man's heart pounding in his chest, and he realized...
He realized that this was not what he wanted at all.
Oliver, feeling old and tired and thoroughly worn out, withdrew his hand from Ambrose's person. "I'm sorry," he said, and he'd meant it, but Ambrose turned and fled, and not another word was ever spoken between them. It was as if he'd never existed at all, only Oliver couldn't help but thinking the sudden swift decline in business was either Ambrose's work, or some sort of payback for turning a man's mind against him.
The party was at Dot's house in the suburbs. Dot was the newest of their number, only eighty-one, and she had thrown herself into their group with a certain terrifying enthusiasm for things like organization, and schedules, and regular newsletters. Venetia hadn't met Dot yet, so Oliver filled her in on the drive out of the city.
"Newsletters?" Venetia asked. "What news do we even have? We hardly ever die, and it's not like any of us take marriage seriously."
"Well," said Oliver, "there's Deidre and Mikel."
"They're just charmingly naïve," said Venetia. She took out a cigarette and lit it. "Want one?" she offered.
"You know, those are really bad for you," said Oliver.
"Yeah, I'm so worried," she said, rolling her eyes.
"...So, about Deidre and Mikel," said Oliver. "Tell me about this restaurant scheme of theirs."
She shrugged, and lowered the car window to tap her cigarette ash out onto the road below. "All I know is they want to quit their jobs and start a restaurant. He can cook, you know. His food's sort of amazing. He could've been our chef if he hadn't been our housepainter."
"Have we got a chef?" Oliver asked.
"I met him once in the sixties, I think you were swamped with wedding hair or something that year. He was funny," said Venetia. "But a terrible tipper. I forget his name."
"Does remembering names cost extra?" Oliver asked. She swatted him. "Anyway," he said, "you've seen them, haven't you? What do they want? You always know what people want."
"I think they want..." She closed her eyes, concentrating on the memory. "I think they want change. I think -- it's odd, because it seems like they want life? But... look, none of us has ever survived a career change for all that long. I mean, I definitely started going grey when I was in the WAAF," she said. "That was kind of a shock. And it was only a few years!"
"Well, that was awfully stressful, wasn't it?" said Oliver. "Anyway, we both went back to normal work by '49. Maybe they'll change their minds in time to go back?"
"I don't really think they will," said Venetia. "They seem pretty set on it."
Oliver sighed. "We'll talk them out of it, don't worry." He hoped. "...How many people have died who you were close to, Venetia?"
She was silent for a moment. "My parents... I had a fair few kids, you know, most of them didn't last long... some good friends. And a couple of clients."
"Really?" Oliver asked.
"You don't have to sound so surprised," said Venetia.
"...Were you ever tempted to quit and, I don't know, marry one of them or something?" he asked. She'd always been so cynical.
"Don't be ridiculous," she said. "I would never have died for them. Besides, they were already married, I knew it wasn't going anywhere. But they were... they were fun. ...What about you?"
"I had five wives over the years," he said. "I mean, back then a wife was more like a business partner, but... I did love them. And the children -- seventeen kids, in all. My first family I stuck around for the grandchildren, but... watching them die... well. I left the rest once they were grown and married. Except for the ones who died too young."
"Plague?" Venetia asked.
"Plague, or barbarian raids. Once someone murdered my son for his money," said Oliver.
"That's awful!" Venetia said.
Oliver had tracked the man down, in hopes of slitting his throat. He hadn't managed it, in the end -- killing a person was very different from bleeding them for their health -- but he'd had nightmares for ages afterwards. "Yes, it was rather awful," he said, trying to keep his eyes on the road. "He was a good boy. I taught him all my trade secrets. I wish he'd gone on to teach them to his son, but... life is cheap for some people."
"Yeah," she said.
They drove the rest of the way in silence.
Dot greeted them at the door. "Ollie!" she said.
"It's Oliver," he insisted. "Oof." Dot was huggy. It was off-putting.
"And you must be, er, er..." Dot blushed; Venetia had had so many names, after all, that she was known more by her profession.
"Venetia," she supplied, shaking Dot's hand. "How nice to meet you. Oliver tells me you have a lot of interesting ideas." She somehow managed to make this sound like a compliment.
"Oh! Thank you," said Dot, brightly. "Yes, I have. But come in, Mikel's made excellent soup, and there's appetizers." She closed the door behind them and led them into a very modern sitting room, all done up in beige and black and orange. Several guests sat talking over drinks and little cubes of cheese.
Oliver had been about to compliment Dot on her décor, but he decided that, on second thought, there was no way he could make it sound sincere, so he asked what was really on his mind. "Is Mikel really quitting the painting business?" Oliver asked Dot, quietly. He didn't want to cause a stir in front of the others.
Dot looked coolly at him. "Well I think it's a marvelous idea. I mean we all have to move on sometime, don't we?"
"No we don't," he said. "That's sort of the point of us, isn't it?"
"If you don't mind," said Venetia, "I'm going to get some appetizers. The airplane food was lousy." And she vanished into the house.
"I don't think there really is any point to us, honestly," said Dot. "It's not like everybody has to quit their jobs. They just want to. What's so wrong about that?"
"I don't think you understand," said Oliver. "They're going to die."
"And?" Dot asked.
Oliver crossed his arms. "And what?"
"What's so bad about that?" she asked. "Everybody else does it."
"You don't understand," said Oliver. "You will when you're older."
"Of course I will," she said, rather patronizingly. "Oh, listen, I need to update your file for the newsletter. First issue comes out next month!"
"Right," grumbled Oliver, and the doorbell rang, and Dot rushed off to say hello to the new guests without any more argument.
Venetia waved him over. "You need to try this bacon thing, I don't know what the bacon's wrapped around, but it's amazing."
"She says 'What's so bad about dying?' like it's nothing!" Oliver said.
"Kids these days, eh?" said Venetia. "Have an appetizer. Seriously. Bacon heals all wounds that time doesn't."
It was difficult to make generalizations about such a diverse group of people as the undying -- there were criminals and lawmen alike among them, men and women, rich and poor and everything in between -- but one thing Oliver had learned over the years was that they were all terrible gossips. He was too, of course -- centuries without knowing anybody like himself had been bound to make him scramble for any information about his compatriots -- but it was a bit agonizing tonight, because all anyone could say was "Did you hear about what they want to do?" and "But it can't be true!" and "I hope it's not, she's so lovely," and "He was the first one of us I ever met, you know."
And as far as anyone knew, Mikel was the oldest of them. There was an undertaker who'd worked for Pharaohs and a plumber who'd got his start in Rome, and even a weaver who, though she had managed to weather the Industrial Revolution and nowadays oversaw a factory full of machines, could recall a time before written words in Greece. But none of them had lived as long as Mikel, and nobody wanted to lose him.
The worst part was, Mikel and Deidre were holed up in the kitchen, so nobody could just take them aside and demand to know what in any and every conceivable hell they were doing.
But finally, Dot made them all sit down at the makeshift collection of tables and chairs she'd put together to hold all the dinner guests, and Mikel came out with some sort of glorious-smelling garlicky seafood dish, and everyone fell silent.
Mikel looked around at them. "I get the impression," he said, "that my plans may be overshadowing the meal tonight."
"Well, of course it got out," said Deidre, coming in from the doorway. "This sort of thing always does, you know that. We're quitting."
"But you can't!" said Oliver, although his individual protest was drowned out by nearly everyone else's.
"We can, we will, and we will be happy doing so," said Deidre, sitting down. "Let's eat."
"But you'll die," said Venetia. "Nobody here wants you to die."
"We'll die eventually," said Mikel. "We're not just going to keel over."
Hector frowned. "But why would you want to --"
"I'm pregnant," said Deidre. "Actually. And we both want kids -- I miss having them, but I just can't watch them die like everybody else. Not again. So that's why. Not that it's really anybody's business." She glared at them all, challenging anyone to object.
The table got very quiet.
"You all know how this goes," said Mikel. "It's not that we don't like the jobs anymore, but..."
And there were no objections, after that. "Well, I'm glad that's settled," said Deidre. "Now, we ought to eat."
The food was excellent, and now that the elephant in the room had been dealt with, the conversation had moved on to other things. "I was thinking," said Dot, "we ought to start doing some sort of outreach, you know?"
"What?" Venetia asked. "I mean I'm all for do-gooding, but I don't think we can --"
"No, no, I just meant we could maybe take out ads in papers, things like that," said Dot. "Little subtle things. There have to be more of us out there, I mean, think about it. I know you started things out with hand-delivered invitations, Venetia, but things are different now, travel's easier, and there have got to be more of us than just this."
"You know, you're right," said Oliver, although Dot's modern enthusiasms usually annoyed him. She had got her start as a telephone operator, and now she did something confusing and computery, and she assumed everybody else cared just as much about technology as she did. "We keep losing contact with people, and they can't have all... quit. Right? Some of them must've just moved away. Like Mae and St. Clair."
"Hmph," said Venetia, "St. Clair. I think he's ashamed to show up."
"Why?" Dot asked.
"Because of Mae," said Venetia. "We were friends, she and I -- she was going to come see me a few years ago, actually -- said she and St. Clair were coming to hit up the casinos, because with all their luck in one place they could make a lot in a weekend. And she and St. Clair... I thought that was a bad idea from the start. He's a selfish idiot."
"Really? I thought they were sweet together," said Dot. "Anyway, she's a soldier, isn't she? She can take care of herself. Right? Besides, like you said, she's got luck powers."
"The thing is, she's not like St. Clair -- she only makes people around her lucky," said Venetia. "I don't think she could win a game of Bingo on her own. I think he did something stupid and used her powers and something went wrong," said Venetia. "He's always been kind of a careless lout."
"Well," said Dot, "I'll see what I can dig up about him. In the meantime, I've got a contact in Brooklyn who thinks he might've found another group of us."
"Huh. Let me know if that pans out," said Venetia. "It'd be nice to know more people slightly closer to home."
"How do you check to see if somebody's immortal, anyway?" Oliver asked. "Is there a test? Have we got different blood or something?"
"Not that I know of," said Dot, "but he knows when people are lying, and... well, we've got to do a lot of lying. Must come in useful, that. Apparently he's a teacher."
"Hm," said Venetia. "I'd like to get a lie detector in the same room as St. Clair and see what he's hiding. If St. Clair ever shows his face again."
"Oh don't," said Dot. "I'm certain Mae will turn up sooner or later and she'll be fine."
After the Ambrose Incident and losing the shop in Mayfair, nothing had gone right for Oliver. His confidence had been shattered for years afterward, and though he was a fine cutter of hair, the men and women who came to his shop left nervous and jittery as he had been. So it was that he'd ended up in Whitechapel; it was where he could pay the rent. It'd been better for his nerves too, until a few years ago, when some madman had started chopping up local prostitutes and Calla had set her mind upon a new hobby. A new and dangerous and totally idiotic hobby, but one he had assumed would never bear fruit.
Until tonight, when he found himself being shaken awake by her, having unwisely given her a key to the shop.
"Leave me alone," he whined, batting her off ineffectively.
"But I have him! I have him! Or, well, somebody like him," she said. She frowned, and moved her lantern closer to the bed. "Oh. You've got company."
"You're blinding me, get that thing out of my face," he said. Beside him, Aaron muttered something grumpy, but it was muffled by the pillow. Oliver laid a hand on his shoulder, and put him back to sleep with a thought. "Get out of here. Let me make myself decent and I'll come downstairs."
"You'll be a while, then?" Calla asked.
He shooed her away, and stumbled out of bed and into a dressing gown.
Did she say she'd found him? Someone like him? But if she'd actually come across the Ripper she'd have been dead by now, he was certain. He stumbled down the stairs, though, because Jack or no Jack, he didn't want any madmen with knives loose in his shop.
But when he reached the shop, none of his worst fears had come true. Calla was standing very smugly next to a man who was tied to a chair.
She was bleeding -- there was a cut on her arm, and -- and was that a bite on her shoulder? "Calla," he said. "You've actually --"
"Please, sir," said the man, "this whore attacked me, I had --" But Calla stuffed his mouth with rags, and he couldn't speak anymore.
"I've heard that excuse before," said Calla. She turned to Oliver. "He tried to kill me," she said, with what Oliver thought was a completely unwarranted note of pride. "I heard him loud and clear, that's what he wants to do with his life. Kill girls like me while we're just trying to make a living."
She bent to pick up the bloodied knife from the floor and turned to the man. "The problem for you is, I know exactly what you want. I always know what everyone wants. Mostly it's nothing indecent. Well, mostly it's indecent, but innocent enough. You, though. You want to make the papers, like him, don't you? You're envious. What gets you hard is being feared, and you won't stop until somebody makes you."
"Calla, don't kill him," said Oliver. "I don't think it'd be worth it."
"I'm not going to," she said. "I'd like to, but I'm not. I'd get in too much trouble. I was thinking... I was thinking maybe you could do what you did to that copper, back when you and Ambrose --"
"You want me to make him forget?" he asked.
"Or something. Fix him, destroy him, make him a blank slate. But I can't just let him go and kill somebody else, and be glad it wasn't me. I'm so damn sick of this, Oliver. D'you know, I used to like my job? There were always rats like him and I avoided them well enough and warned people off, but I never met anyone who was doing it just for the fame. What the hell kind of fame is that, anyway? Who wants to be known for evil?"
"Can't we get the police?" Oliver asked.
"Oh come on, they're useless," said Calla. "Besides, there's your guest."
"Well I wouldn't have to deal with this if you hadn't brought him here," grumbled Oliver. But he did owe Calla. She'd stuck by him after Ambrose, and if truth be told, he owed a good amount of custom to her and the friends she had in the business.
He sighed. "All right, Calla. I'll... I'll do what I can about him."
Sensing he was about to be changed somehow, the man flinched away from Oliver's touch, but he couldn't really go anywhere. He tried to make the man kinder, gentler, but something within the man's mind kept thwarting him -- there was a twisted sort of self-pity here, and a rage, and a loathing for all the world that Oliver could not work out how to solve. There were likely doctors of the mind who could have done all these things, could have sat with the man and remade him shining and new, had they been blessed with Oliver's powers, but he didn't know what to do with the man's mind. Something had just gone wrong.
It was like being a barber-surgeon again; all he had was a knife and all Oliver could do was bleed the patient or cut off the flesh that seemed wrong, and bandage him up, and hope. There was no room for the nuance or the delicacy he'd so prided himself on in his fanciful wigs and dyes and hair.
So Oliver cut it all out. Whatever strange tumor was in this man's mind, it was just all going to have to go. He was aware that he was more of a butcher than a barber here, for the man twitched and made horrible noises, muffled by the gag but not totally cut off.
Oliver had not realized how long he had been standing there, buried in the filth of someone else's mind, until Calla called him back to the world outside the murderer's head. "Oliver," she said. "Oliver, you'd better hurry up, it's getting light out."
He shuddered, slightly, pulling his hands away from the man's head, and wiping them off on his dressing gown, for he'd had awfully greasy hair. "I think it's done."
"He sounds done," said Calla. "At least. I don't feel that awful cloud of murderousness about him anymore. I don't think he's even awake." The man's head lolled worryingly, but he was still breathing, so that was... that was something, Oliver supposed. But even if the man lived and breathed, he was certainly not the same man who'd come in. Had Oliver murdered someone tonight?
"There you go," said Calla, gently pulling the makeshift gag out of his mouth and untying him. "Wake up, you."
The man's eyes flew open and he gazed fearfully about. He was shivering, Oliver noticed.
"Do you know where you are?" Calla asked, as if she hadn't been willing to cut the man's throat hours ago, as if she was the gentlest creature in the world. The man shook his head. "Do you know ...who you are?" He shook his head. "No," he said, roughly. "No. Who am I?"
"Damned if I know," said Calla. "Here, let's get you to someone who can help," she said, taking his hand.
"Was I bound?" he asked. "Did somebody do something to me?"
"You were having a fit," she said. "You could've harmed yourself. Poor dear. Now, come on," she said. The man got shakily to his feet, and leaned on her. "Thanks, Oliver. Knew I could count on you," she said, leading the man slowly to the door.
"Madame, are you bleeding?" asked the man, horrified.
"Oh, it's nothing," she said. "You should see the other fellow."
And with that, they were gone.
Oliver cleaned up the rags Calla had used to tie her prisoner up, because they would surely raise... unusual questions. Then he went upstairs.
He found Aaron smiling and only half-asleep, and slid back into the bed next to him. "I dreamed you were fighting a man with a sword," Aaron said, putting his arms around Oliver. "You should've brought me with you," he muttered against Oliver's neck.
Oliver felt horribly guilty then -- for the man whose life he'd just irrevocably changed, for the myriad lies he'd told over the centuries, and for continuing to lie to someone as lovely as Aaron, who taught Sunday school – well, on Saturdays -- and deserved a wife and a family and happiness. But he didn't dare tell Aaron that. So instead, he said, "I haven't fought anybody with swords for a good long while now. You didn't miss anything interesting."
"I can always tell when you're lying. Anyway, you're interesting," said Aaron. "I think. Sometimes I think you've got a lot of secrets." He sounded hurt, and uncertain, and Oliver wished he could make that all go away -- and he could, with a quick kiss and a silent command to forget. But he didn't -- he couldn't. Not with a lover, and not for something so petty.
So instead, he said, "I know. I'm sorry." And neither of them brought it up ever again.
Oliver probably would have spent more time worrying about what would become of Deidre and Mikel if he hadn't been totally distracted by the upcoming preparations for Faust. Victor had been so impressed with the work Oliver had done on his hair that he'd asked to see more of Oliver's and Sherri's work. And between Sherri's talent for taking outlandish high fashion styles and making them wearable, and Oliver's (apparently surprising) knowledge of historical styling, Victor had been really impressed, and he'd made arrangements for the two of them to work with the costume designers and the theater's stylists.
Oliver was terribly flattered that Victor had been willing to trust him, because Victor, he learned, was not the sort of man to let anything like reality or other people's ideas get in the way of his artistic vision.
It was, in fairness, a rather intense and fascinating artistic vision. Victor was taking risks, doing new things, rewriting large swathes of the script, and all sorts of other very bold things that were probably extremely deep and artistic and meaningful. Oliver tried to sound like he knew what he was talking about when Victor talked at him about his work, and it seemed to be working, which was encouraging.
The nicest thing about Faust, though, was that Victor was no longer really a client of Oliver's. Now he was an artistic collaborator. Which meant Oliver now knew all sorts of other interesting things about Victor. Like how much Victor enjoyed being bent over and fucked in a supply closet during Equity breaks, and how good Victor was with his mouth when he wasn't using it just to hear himself talk.
The other particularly nice thing about Victor, and this was sort of new, actually, was that he wasn't ashamed of Oliver. Certainly, he'd had lovers who didn't treat him like something disgusting and unclean -- there was Aaron, for one -- but laws and mores being what they were at the time, even that affair had had a tinge of guilt for Oliver, especially since Aaron had been so... well. He'd been sweet.
Victor was not sweet. But he was shameless, and it delighted Oliver to no end. And he was possessive, which flattered Oliver to no end, considering Victor could've had any of the actresses and most of the actors in his play.
One afternoon, after Oliver had had one too many bridal parties scheduled, all seven stylists at the shop had been working nonstop for hours, they were nearly out of hairspray, and Sherri's round brush had gone missing, Alan Bloody Hopper had swanned in like he owned the place and had the nerve to plead with Oliver to reschedule his appointment for right then and there.
"Alan, I'll see if I've got time tomorrow, but I really have to go," said Oliver. Or I will stab you with these scissors.
Alan ran his hands through his hair, which looked just fine to Oliver, despite being attached to an idiot. "Look, I'm not saying --"
"Oliver," said Sherri, "you haven't seen my round brush anywhere, have you?"
"I looked when you asked me before," Oliver reminded her. "Twice."
"I don't think you really did, though," said Sherri. "Come on, it's not like gremlins made off with it! I bet Tiffany stole it, she's really shifty today. Oi! Tiffany!" she shouted, and went off to harangue somebody else.
"You know," said Alan, "I actually read a very interesting article about how when you lose things, it's usually because your aura is very negative, and I think it makes complete sense. I mean, think about it, when are you always looking for something? When you're grumpy! Totally logical!"
"Absolutely," said Oliver. "Look, I'm afraid there's just no way we can fit you in today, barring some kind of miraculous addition of another twelve hours in the day, so would you please remove yourself from --"
The phone rang.
"Oh bloody hell," snarled Oliver, picking up the phone. "A Cut Above the Rest Salon, how may I help you?" he asked, trying very, very hard not to sound snappish.
"Why don't I take you away from all that?" It was Victor. "Just for this afternoon?"
"Nrrgh," said Oliver. The idea was lovely and impossible, like a beautiful mirage in the desert.
"I'll take that as a no," said Victor, sighing. "Tonight, then. I'll pick you up!"
"I don't know that I'm --" Oliver started, but there was a click. He sighed and put the phone back down.
"You don't look very happy," observed Alan.
"Alan," said Oliver, "while it's very flattering that you think so highly of my skills, some things are just not possible, and if you do not leave me alone I am going to call the police."
"Oh no, not them," said Alan. "They're no fun."
"Go," said Oliver, pointing to the door.
Dejected, Alan left.
One of Sherri's clients, a bespectacled university girl with an asymmetrical haircut, had got in line sometime during the last of Alan's little fit. When Oliver looked up at her and asked her what she needed, she said, rather breathlessly, "Was that Puck Selby? Who just left?"
It took Oliver a few seconds to remember this was Alan's stage name. She was a fan. "Oh, yes," he said.
"I heard he gets a haircut just before all his concerts because he's really superstitious, and then if it doesn't come out right he just cancels the concert and stays inside for a month," she said.
"So I've heard," agreed Oliver. It was probably true. "Seems a little inconvenient, though."
"Oh, well, that's just the artistic temperament," she said, very seriously. "...So, Sherri said I should schedule for six to eight weeks out?"
"Yes, of course," said Oliver, paging through the diary to schedule her appointment.
It had been a long day. It continued to be a long day until Victor strode in while they were sweeping up the last of the hair from the floor.
"I'll do the rest," said Tiffany, waving him off. "I'll make Sherri help; she went off on me about her missing brush and I think she feels bad. You two go have fun."
"Thanks," said Oliver, rubbing his eyes.
"You look dead on your feet," said Victor, sliding one hand around his shoulder.
"It's wedding season," said Oliver. "Wedding season's the worst lately."
"...What do you mean, lately?" Victor asked.
That had been an idiotic way to phrase it. Oliver shook his head. "Just, it seems like there's not enough time in the day."
"Well, no one ever has enough time, do they?" Victor asked. "'Cheer your heart, drink, regard this day's life as yours but all else as Fortune's!'" he declared.
Probably he was quoting something literary, but as far as Oliver was concerned, Fortune could take today too, and shove it up her arse. "Where are we going?" he asked, realizing he'd no idea whatsoever.
"Ah. I was thinking my flat," said Victor. "You don't really seem up for a night out, so I thought we could have a night in." Victor stopped at his car, a gleaming black Triumph, and they got in.
The top was down, the sun was just setting, and it was a beautiful evening. Oliver was somewhere between awake and asleep, Victor was telling a funny story about his actors (it started with "Honestly, I have no idea how some of the cast even dress themselves," and went on from there) and Oliver was just letting what he said wash over him, and Victor's hand was on his knee, and Oliver thought it was a bit of a pity he had to drive, because would've been happy to drag the other man over and kiss him if it wasn't for that, and then somehow one of Victor's sentences ended in "...and I was wondering if you could tell me how it works?"
"Sorry?" Oliver asked, coming out of his reverie. "I was -- I think I drifted off a bit."
"Sorry," said Victor. "I said, I was wondering if you could tell me how it works."
"How what works?" Oliver asked.
"Your immortality racket," said Victor.
Oliver froze. "...Sorry?" he asked.
"It's all right, you can tell me," said Victor. "I understand completely. Who wouldn't want to live forever? I just --"
"I have no idea," said Oliver, "what you're talking about."
Victor pulled the car over, and turned to look at him. "Are you really going to do this?" he asked.
"Victor, I've had a miserable shitty day from hell," said Oliver, "and I have no idea what you're on about. I really haven't. Is..." He hazarded a guess, even though it was his usual guess. "Is it some sort of method thing?"
"What? No!" said Victor. "Oliver, why don't you trust me?" He put one hand on Oliver's. "Do you want me to die? Is that it? Why are you being so selfish?" His tone was petulant, but Oliver could tell he was seething.
This had not been how Oliver wanted to spend his evening, but Victor was angry and Oliver was very, very awake now. He did not want to be in a car with this man anymore. He unbuckled his seatbelt.
"Oliver, what are you doing?" he demanded. He grabbed Oliver's wrist. "You're going to show me how it's done. Was it some kind of demon thing?"
"You've been at rehearsals too long," said Oliver. "Far, far too long. Let me go, you idiot. Why do you even think I'm --"
"You're not very good at lying," said Victor.
"I'm not lying," said Oliver. "Why would you --"
"And Mae mentioned you," he added.
Oliver froze. "What?"
"But she's dying," said Victor. "I don't know why. Like sharks in captivity, I guess. She looks awful. But she hasn't told me the secret yet. I'd threaten it out of her, but I paid a lot of money for her and my luck still holds -- after all, I met you, didn't I?" He beamed. "After all, it's not like I keep her around for fun, she's honestly sort of a nuisance. But you'll be able to help me, won't you? You understand why it's so important, or you wouldn't even still be alive."
"Is -- is this why I've never seen your flat?" Oliver asked, because he'd just sort of wondered if Victor was married or living with a girlfriend or had really terrible taste in furniture or something else unforgivable, but not as unforgivable as buying somebody, and holding them prisoner, and watching them die.
Victor laughed. "Oh, I like you, Oliver. That's the first thing you ask? You're so sweet, but you're so selfish. It's sort of adorable. Just tell me how it works and we can --"
Oliver punched him, hard, in the face. While Victor was stunned, Oliver grabbed his wrist, and snapped "Go to sleep," and put as much of himself into the thought as possible, and, just like that, Victor slumped over onto the steering wheel.
He got out of the car, and was about to go find the nearest Tube stop, when he thought better of it and swiped Victor's wallet.
When he got home that night, exhausted and numb from the wretched, terrible day he'd had, Oliver had a blinding headache.
First he called Sherri. "I'm not coming in tomorrow."
"What?" she demanded. "What the hell, you can't go off with your boyfriend and --"
"He's not my boyfriend," said Oliver. It came out more harshly than he'd meant it to.
"...Oh, Oliver," she said, her voice full of pity. "I'm so sorry to --"
"Never mind being sorry," he said. "It's -- it's complicated. But if he comes to the shop, call the police, all right? He's not well."
"What?" she asked. "Oliver, what happened?"
"I don't really want to talk about it," he said. "Cancel my appointments, tell them I'm really, really sorry. I know I managed to squeeze Alan in, but he isn't the exception, so..."
"All right," said Sherri, sounding concerned. "And don't worry, I can handle Alan. Take care of yourself?"
"Yeah, yeah. Goodnight." He hung up, then dialed Venetia.
"What?" she demanded, sounding grumpy and half-awake.
"Oh, sorry, is it a bad time?" he asked. He kept forgetting quite how time differences worked, but he didn't think it should've been a problem.
"It's eleven in the morning," she told him.
"But that's... not that early?" he asked.
"I work nights," she said. "I need my beauty sleep. But keep talking. This better be good."
"I know where Mae is," he said.
There was a crashing noise, like the sound of a glass shattering. "Shit," muttered Venetia. "Ow."
"Are you all right?" he asked, concerned.
"I'm fine, I'm fine," she said. "Dropped my coffee. You found Mae? Where is she? Is she all right?"
"Probably not," he said. "Victor's got her."
"...like, your boyfriend Victor? Dark Prince Victor?" she asked.
Oliver couldn't help but get defensive. "He's not like that! He's nice! Er, or, well, I..."
"Or, well, you what?" she asked. "What happened with Mae? What do you mean he's got her?"
"I think he might've kidnapped her?" Oliver asked.
"Well, I don't like to say I told you so," said Venetia, "but --"
"You bloody well do," said Oliver. "God, what was I thinking, of course he was just using me, do you know what happened?'
"Well, no, as a matter of fact, I don't, this being the first I've heard about it and all," she said, irritably.
"What happened is he wants the secret of immortality. Like I even know what that is."
"Did you try telling him it was hard work and clean living?" she asked.
"Those are two things he's very bad at," said Oliver, "so I don't think it would've helped."
"Har har. How do you know he has Mae?" she asked.
"He said so. I suppose she's probably at his flat." There was a long silence. "...Venetia? You still there?"
"...Oliver, seriously, you'd never been to his place before?"
"And you've been dating since, what, March?"
"Well I mean, we weren't, we weren't dating, and I thought --"
"Didn't you... maybe wonder if he was married?"
"Well... well, yes, look, don't you lecture me about sexual morality."
"I'm not!" she said. "I just thought you were kind of a romantic. ...Also, I hate to be a jerk, but what do you want me to do about Mae? I'm over here in the desert on entirely the wrong continent."
"Yes, but you have that ridiculous phone book Dot sent out, and I've lost mine already. I know your number, though. ...And I needed to talk to someone," he added, reluctantly.
"Oh believe me, I know how it is," she said. "All right, lemme dig up Dot's number for you."
Oliver supposed he was lucky, but he didn't feel particularly lucky. He was back to being what basically amounted to a barber-surgeon once more -- well, a medic; his total lack of squeamishness made him well-suited for the job, and people seemed more likely to survive these days. And he still cut hair, because somebody had to do it. But he hadn't been back home in months, and the city -- his city, he couldn't help but thinking -- was in ruins. It reminded him rather of the old days. He wondered if he was in the middle of another conquest; if the Nazis would be like the Saxons and the Normans in the end and in a hundred years he'd be speaking German.
The Saxons had been unpleasant at first, but ultimately he'd come around, and forgiven them for destroying his shop, because it'd been so long ago. And he'd resented the Normans, but he hadn't honestly tried very hard with them, because he didn't know what the point of that would have been. After all, London itself had always carried on, or at least, the City had; as long as business kept going, London seemed happy enough. Would London forgive the Blitz, though? Right now it seemed unlikely, but once it faded from living memory, would anyone care?
Oliver was meant to be visiting family right now, but as he didn't really have family, he was waiting for his oldest friend in the world. Where the hell was she? It wasn't like her to be late. Her name was Adela nowadays and had been since 1903, but Oliver kept slipping up and calling her Calla.
He spotted her coming toward him and waved, but then he stopped, because she was with somebody, an American officer, it looked like. It was sort of odd, because she wasn't actually flirting with him, not like she normally did, and as far as Oliver knew, she'd been too wrapped up in her war work to continue her usual business. But Adela waved back, and pointed him out to the man she was with.
Oliver hoped she wasn't setting them up or anything. It seemed like a bad idea in general, considering there was a war on and it was illegal and that fellow wasn't even Oliver's type, honestly, he thought she'd know better by now.
But when she and the American got to him, she said "This is Mae! Mae, this is Oliver. She's one of us!" she said.
"Hi!" said the soldier, who was... a surprisingly convincing crossdresser. She held out her hand.
"Hello," said Oliver, shaking her hand. "What d'you mean, one of us?" he asked Adela.
"I've been soldiering for about eighty years now," said Mae. "I figured I'd settle down eventually, but I guess that didn't happen."
"Apparently not," said Oliver. "...How, if you don't mind my asking, did you get into the profession?"
She shrugged. "I was the oldest of seven girls, we needed the money, and the Union boys needed so many soldiers that they weren't looking too hard to make sure we were who we said we were. Turns out I'm good at it. And peacetime's boring anyway," she said.
"I could use a little more boredom in my life," said Oliver, irritably.
"Sorry, I guess that's kind of insensitive," Mae said. "But honestly I'm so glad to know I'm not the only one who just inexplicably always survives. Is it just me, or do we not get sick either?"
"I had a cough last month," said Adela.
"Yeah, but you haven't been working," said Mae. "It's different when you're working. I was married for about twenty years and it was the worst decision of my life. I got to be about fifty, I think -- which wasn't too bad, but it's not what I'm used to, you know? But once I faked my death and found another fight, I was back to my old self again."
"That explains a lot," said Adela. "Well. Hopefully the war won't last very long."
"What've you been doing in the WAAF?" Oliver asked.
"Just bureaucratic stuff," Adela said. "Oh, and driving officers around. That's sort of fun, actually, I like to make them blush. But it hardly ever goes anywhere." She sighed.
"You could try lowering your rates," said Oliver.
"Shut up, you," she said. "It's not just the money I miss."
"Didn't you say we were meeting someone else?" said Mae.
"Oh! St. Clair is coming, Oliver, I forgot to mention," said Adela. "He was in the States for a few decades, but he's back in town again. Some people like to move at regular intervals," she told Mae, "to keep from being found out. You might consider it, especially as a soldier."
"But you don't have to move," said Oliver. "I've been in London practically since the Romans left us; all you really need to do is stick to big cities if you're going to stay put. Adela's been a Londoner practically forever too."
"Only recently," said Adela. "I was in Italy for a while, and I'm originally from Troyes."
Oliver blinked. He hadn't heard that one. "Isn't that in France, though?"
"I believe it was, last I left it," said Adela.
"But you're not French!" he said.
"I knew he wouldn't take this well," said Adela. She patted him on the hand. "I hate to break it to you, Oliver. I'm not a one-nationality-forever kind of girl. I need my freedom!"
"But --" said Oliver. "France?"
"Look!" said Adela, pointing. "There's St. Clair! I should warn you, Mae, he's a bit slimy and you probably won't like him, but we have to stick together, don't we?"
St. Clair came striding up, smug as always. "Hello, hello. What's your name this year, sweetheart?" he asked Adela.
"It's not sweetheart, if that's what you're asking," said Adela.
"Hi!" said Mae, enthusiastically. "You're the gambler, yeah? St. Swithins or whatever."
St. Clair was slightly taken aback. "Who's the deceptively-dressed friend? Clara or Adelina or whoever you are this week, I thought you were bringing a girl, not a --"
"I brought a friend," said Adela. "She's a soldier. She's one of us."
"I'm Mae," she said brightly.
"What, you forgot to pack a dress?" St. Clair asked her.
"Oh, leave her alone," said Oliver, "she's just --"
"I'm sorry I didn't dress up all pretty to make you happy, Mr. St. Clair," said Mae, "but it was a little more pressing that I keep my job and not be found out. I notice you're not in uniform, though."
"I've got a bad leg," said St. Clair.
"Really?" said Mae.
"No you haven't," said Oliver.
"Which leg is it?" asked Adela.
"I don't remember," said St. Clair, "but I wouldn't last a day out there and you know it, even with my luck to protect me. I'll stick to my strengths, thank you very much."
"And I'll stick to mine, if you don't mind," said Mae. She looked to Adela. "The concert's this way, right? Just follow the crowds."
"Yes," said Adela. "Here, I'll take the lead, I should think I know the city well enough by now."
Once the two women were out of earshot, St. Clair turned to Oliver. "I know she's not really your type, but do you happen to know if she's got a fellow anywhere or --"
"I don't think you made a very good first impression," said Oliver.
"But therein lies my charm!" said St. Clair. "There is so much to me beneath the surface!"
"Like an iceberg," agreed Oliver. "Or a sea monster."
"You're not very understanding," said St. Clair. "Besides, what would you know about women?"
"Ask her yourself, then," said Oliver, cheerfully. "See whether she hits you or not." And to Oliver's mild disappointment, St. Clair did not have a black eye before the day was over.
By the next morning, Oliver had been on the phone for far too long, and had had no sleep whatsoever. He'd talked with Dot, who'd told him to call Mikel, who said he didn't know where St. Clair was holed up but he did know someone who could get Mae out, if Oliver had an address.
Hoping Victor's driver's license was up to date, he passed the address on to Mikel, and crossed his fingers that Mae was actually there.
Then Sherri from the salon called. "Oliver, are you all right? Your boyfriend is a complete nutter."
"I'm fine," he said, wearily.
"You sound awful," she said. "Have you tried ice cream and dumb movies?"
"No," said Oliver. "Is Victor still there?"
"Urgh, he's still outside. He's not being violent or anything, he's just really, really hacked off."
"Did he say I stole his wallet?" Oliver asked.
"Yes!" said Sherri. "Only I told him that was the stupidest thing I'd ever heard, and --"
"No, I did steal his wallet," said Oliver. "So he's basically just angry? Not being a raving lunatic or anything?"
"Basically," said Sherri. "...Why'd you take his wallet?"
"It's a long story," said Oliver. "Look, I'm expecting another call, I've got to go, I'm -- I'm really, really sorry about this, Sherri."
"It's all right," said Sherri, although she sounded pretty annoyed. Oliver couldn't exactly blame her.
He hung up, and got up to make himself some tea, but as soon as he'd set the pot to brewing, the phone rang again.
He sighed and picked up. "Mikel?"
"Oliver! It's St. Clair!"
"...What? Where the hell have you been?" Oliver demanded.
"No no no listen to me, please," pleaded St. Clair. "I heard through the grapevine that you found Mae. Is she all right? Please tell me she's all right."
"I've no idea," said Oliver, "but if she isn't, we know who to blame, don't we? What the hell did you do, sell her?"
"What kind of bastard do you think I am?" St. Clair asked, horrified. "It's my fault, I should never have tried -- but I didn't mean -- I couldn't find her -- she --"
"Call Mikel if you have anything useful to say," said Oliver, icily. "I'm hanging up now." And he did.
When the phone rang again while he was pouring the tea, Oliver was so startled he ended up scalding himself. "Goddamnit, St. Clair," he snarled into the receiver.
"Hello to you too," said Mikel.
"Oh. Sorry," said Oliver, feeling like an idiot. "What's going on?"
"Mae's there, but D.B.'s going to need a few hours to get her out. She's chained up and he's going to need supplies," said Mikel.
"He's a bank robber," said Mikel. "He's a teleporter."
"I think I must've missed that meeting," said Oliver. "Really, we have a teleporter?"
"Oliver, focus. Can you lure this Victor person out of his flat by ten tomorrow morning until noon?"
Oliver sighed. "I'll do what I can. Thanks. ...Is Mae all right?"
"She'll be fine for another day," said Mikel.
"Right," said Oliver, although he didn't think that was very reassuring. "I'll distract Victor. Later." He dialed the salon.
"A Cut Above the Rest Salon! Can you hold, please?" Sherri asked.
"No, Sherri, it's me!" said Oliver.
"Oh! What's going on?" she asked.
"Is Victor still there? Tell me he's still there," he said.
"I just got him to go away," said Sherri. "...You want him back? Oliver, he's no good for you."
"No, no, no," said Oliver, "that's not it, it's -- can you still go get him?"
"...Er," said Sherri. "Maybe? Why --"
"Just go tell him to meet me at the salon tomorrow at ten," said Oliver. "Please. This is actually a life or death situation."
"...Fine. You are so weird," said Sherri. "You owe me a mountain of drinks after this."
Then he made one more call. "Hey, Alan? It's Oliver Fox, from the salon. I know Sherri called you up and cancelled --"
"Oh my god, is everything all right?" Alan asked. "I knew this would happen. Are you ill? Did somebody die?"
"...not yet?" Oliver said.
"Oh. Thank goodness. ...So can you fit me in sometime this week? Please? Seriously, I really need it."
Oliver took a deep breath. "Tomorrow I can," he said. "But can I ask a favor?"
"Anything!" said Alan, cheerfully.
"There'll be this furiously angry fellow coming in tomorrow and I need him not to be able to get home easily. He's a theater director, and he's sort of a walking ego. Call a press conference and announce you're collaborating with him, or mobilize two hundred screaming fans to mob him, or say you're going to expose him for the fraud he is." Oliver waited, hoping Alan would cooperate just this once.
"That sounds amazing," said Alan. "Why's he so upset?"
"He's, er." Oliver sighed. "He's sort of extorting me?"
"Oh no! What is it? Did he find out that you're a..." He paused, before going on, in a voice barely above a whisper. "...a homosexual?"
Oliver only just managed not to laugh. "I think he's been aware of that for a while," he said. "I really don't expect it to be a problem."
"Oh," said Alan. "...Did he find out you're an immortal with superpowers?"
"How does everyone know that?" Oliver demanded.
"Lucky guess," said Alan. "Also I had this irritating history tutor who always knew when I was lying about not having cheated, and I swear he never aged. So anyway! I'll be there with the tabloids, my entourage, and a xylophone. What time?"
"Come at nine, I'll cut your hair, and then be ready to be incredibly irritating by ten," said Oliver.
The next day, Oliver showed up early. He'd heard no more from St. Clair or Mikel, or the mysterious D.B., and he hoped everything would be all right.
"You look awful," said Sherri. "Um, also, by the way, Alan Bloody Hopper's coming in --"
"At nine, I know," said Oliver. "I said I'd see him."
"...I don't get it," said Sherri. "This is a really fast rebound, Oliver, I don't think --"
"Oh, god, no," said Oliver. "For his hair. I'm cutting his hair. Also, he's apparently bringing a xylophone?"
Someone was tapping on the glass of the salon door. They turned and saw Alan, more cheerful than Oliver'd ever seen him pre-haircut.
"I don't see the xylophone," said Sherri. "Should we let him in? It's early."
Oliver opened the door. "I thought maybe I should also have a touchup on the dye so I showed up early," said Alan. "Also you would not believe how expensive it is to rent an elephant last-minute in this city. It's ridiculous."
"...An elephant?" Sherri asked.
"Right this way," said Oliver, leading Alan to a chair and putting the apron 'round him. "Sherri, mix the dye. What color do you want to do, Alan? It's on the house."
"I was thinking orange and pink and black stripes?" said Alan. "That'll look good, right?"
"Extremely," Oliver lied.
"I have no idea what the hell is going on," Sherri said as she went to mix the dye, "but tomorrow's my day off and I can't bloody wait."
As Oliver worked, he tried to enhance Alan's natural excitability, and as he listened to Alan talk, it seemed to be working. "...so I just don't know what I ought to have told them," he said, wrapping up a long, rambling story about a couple of groupies he'd disappointed. "I mean, I'm the Puck Selby, you know. The thinking girl's one-night-stand."
"Did you say you were married?" asked Oliver.
"Oh, that doesn't count. It was Vegas. There's a law, isn't there?" said Alan. "That's like the state motto of Vegas, isn't it?"
"No," said Oliver. He decided not to point out that Las Vegas wasn't a state.
"...Hm. Maybe I should've paid attention to those divorce papers, then," said Alan. "Oh well! What's done is done."
He was pretty much hopeless, Oliver decided.
Business picked up, and Oliver was starting to get back into his comfortable old routine, but around nine forty-five, Victor showed up. He was fuming. Damn, he's too early, Oliver thought.
"Oliver!" he shouted. "Or whatever your name really is. You know what I've come for."
Oh, Victor, thought Oliver. So dramatic. "Do you mind? I'm really very busy," said Oliver. "Also, I'm not working with you on Faust anymore. By the way."
"I should sue you," said Victor. "And I should tell everyone you're -- you're a vampire or something."
"Can this wait, Victor? I'm nearly finished," said Oliver. "And for heaven's sake, I'm not a vampire, I've got a reflection, haven't I? Besides, I tan. You can sit down and wait for me just like everyone else."
"That's him?" whispered Alan.
"It is," confirmed Oliver.
Victor sat ill-temperedly and waited while Oliver trimmed Alan's last few stray hairs and did as much elaborate product primping as he thought he could get away with. He kept looking outside the shop window, nervously. Oh good, he thought as he saw two men lugging some sort of heavy box in front of the shop window, there's the xylophone, and then he wondered if he'd ever had such an odd thought in his long, long life.
There was a crowd gathering outside. Oliver handed Alan a mirror and spun him around to look at the back of his own head. "Well, is it Puck Selby enough for you?" he asked.
"Definitely," said Alan, grinning like a maniac. "And now for the show!"
Oh god, what have I done? Oliver wondered. He hoped there wouldn't be singing.
"Finally," snarled Victor, as Oliver walked up to him. "How did you knock me out?" he demanded. "Where's my wallet?"
Oliver gave him the wallet, and watched placidly as Victor checked to see that nothing was missing. "Will that be all?"
"No, that will not be all!" said Victor. "I want my immortality! What is it, is it some kind of elixir? Are you an alien?"
Oliver sighed. "I can't help you, Victor. This is where we part ways." He extended a hand. "I was very fond of you for a while there, you know."
"Don't you put me off like that," said Victor. He batted Oliver's hand away, and in that moment of physical contact, Oliver poured all his rage into Victor. The other man seemed to be galvanized by this, and he bristled. "How dare you. You're just some fucking hairdresser, you're not even very clever. Why is it you who never dies? How do you even fucking do that?" He was shouting now, and everyone in the shop was staring at him.
"Sir?" said Sherri. "Sir, you're being --"
"This is none of your business," said Victor. "Stay out of it."
"Right, but you called my business partner an alien," said Sherri, "so I'm not particularly impressed. Tell me, is he the green kind with antennas or the grey kind with big eyes?" Victor took a step towards her, but she brandished her curling iron, which, Oliver realized, was still plugged in. "Back off," she said. She turned to Oliver. "You could so do better." Then she frowned, looking somewhere behind Oliver, out into the street in front of the shop. "...is that an elephant?"
Oliver turned to look just in time to see Alan hurrying back into the salon.
"Hey! Victor, right?" he said, bounding up to Victor. "Gosh I'm so glad to meet you."
"Who the fuck are you?" Victor asked.
"Puck Selby. You know, the Puck Selby?" he said, hopefully. When Victor didn't say anything, he added, "The singer?"
"Oh. Popular music," said Victor, his voice dripping with scorn.
"I'm so glad you're a fan!" said Alan. "Because you and I are working on a concept album based on your production of Faust. Whatever Faust is."
"But how can you not know what Faust --" Victor started.
"Come on!" said Alan, cheerfully. Victor was so nonplussed he allowed himself to be dragged out of the salon.
Oliver and Sherri watched the show outside their little beauty salon in silence for a few moments. The sidewalk, usually full of painfully well-dressed Sloane Rangers and Hoorah Henrys, was now absolutely filled to bursting with a scene rather more suited to Covent Garden. Alan dragged Victor up onto a platform, where there was a mic on a stand, and a xylophone in untasteful shades of pink, orange, and black -- to match his hair, Oliver supposed. "HELLOOOO LONDON!" shouted Alan. There was cheering from the crowd. Victor was being restrained by three stagehands. "I promised you a performance and an announcement! I didn't promise you an elephant, but I brought one anyway! Don't say I never gave you anything!" There was more cheering. Then Victor managed to break free and punch Alan in the nose.
"That is an elephant," said Sherri.
"It certainly is," said Oliver. "It is unmistakably an elephant." It was wearing a little tasseled saddle. Oliver wondered if Alan was going to ride it, or if it was just a set piece.
"...So, are you an alien?" Sherri asked, unplugging her curling iron and setting it down to cool. "Like, you're not Doctor Who, are you?"
"I wouldn't be caught dead in that scarf," said Oliver.
"Good thing," said Sherri.
They watched Alan play off being punched as all part of the show, which was actually pretty impressive. Victor had started insulting him, all to jeers and boos from the fans, who seemed to be treating this like a Punch and Judy show, and Oliver grinned, because he absolutely knew Victor's ego wouldn't rest until he recovered some semblance of dignity.
"You know," said Sherri, "I think everybody's got something strange about them. Like, I dated a bloke with webbed feet for a while. It didn't work out. ...But not because of the webbed feet!" she added, quickly. "He didn't want kids."
"...Right," said Oliver.
"Also, just so you know, most people don't have to think very long to remember what age they're turning when they go out with friends for their birthdays," said Sherri. "I'm just saying, you could probably do better with this stuff."
"...Does everybody know?" Oliver asked, running a hand through his hair.
"Nah," said Sherri. "We all thought you were just lying about your age out of vanity. But now that I think about it, I started working with you, what, fifteen years ago? And you've always looked about thirty-five. Was he blackmailing you or something?" She nodded at Victor, who was now shouting insults at the crowd. "Because I don't think anyone important would believe him."
"No, he's... he's been holding a friend prisoner. I think that's how he found out about me," said Oliver.
"Shit. Really? That's low," said Sherri. "Why don't you have him arrested?"
"We haven't got any evidence," said Oliver.
"Oh, but we have now," said a voice from behind them.
"Venetia!" said Oliver, turning. When he saw who was with her, he was even more relieved. "Mae?" They must've come in through the back.
"Hi," said Mae, in a small voice. She was pale and sickly-looking, and had circles under her eyes, and she was dressed in baggy men's clothes that didn't fit properly. But she was grinning.
"What happened? How'd he get you?" Oliver asked. "Did St. Clair do something?"
"Ugh," said Mae. "No, it wasn't Rob's fault. Not really. I was on leave, and he and I hit up the casinos, because, you know, he's got absurd good luck and I give everyone around me absurd good luck, and it's kind of perfect. And we figured we could use the savings if we ever ran into trouble. But we went back to this one casino too many times and they couldn't tell how we were cheating -- because we fucking weren't -- so they kidnapped us.
"Well, I love Robbie and all, but let's face it, he's essentially useless and they figured that out pretty quickly. Me, though? I have all the damn military training in the world. So they used him as a hostage and I did a bunch of shitty things for them, and I swear to god I am not going to let them forget it.
"But that's not soldiering, that's not what I do, right? But time was catching up with me and then Rob managed to get away, and I stopped being useful for stuff like that. But I still had my luck. They sold me to this stockbroker, and he sold me to some Soviet politician, and then I got bought by a mob boss, and then Knight got me on the black market for an insultingly low price."
"Jesus Christ," said Sherri. "What the fuck have you got mixed up with?"
"And there are the police," said Venetia, beaming. They turned around just in time to see Victor being led away in handcuffs.
"Good," said Mae. "...Is, um. Is Robbie okay?" she asked.
"St. Clair? He seemed worried about you on the phone yesterday," said Oliver, "but I was sort of ...harsh with him. I've no idea where he is." One of the police officers was now shouting at Alan and pointing at the elephant. Oliver wondered if Alan was going to be fined for Possession of an Unlicensed Pachyderm or something.
"So, it was nice meeting you all, Mad Friends of Oliver," said Sherri, "but... I don't think anyone can even get into the salon through that crowd, and who knows how long they'll clear out." She sighed. "Come on, Oliver, we're going to have to make some calls."
"Venetia, have you two got somewhere to stay?" Oliver asked.
"This was kind of short notice, actually, and I don't have much in savings right now," said Venetia. "Could we crash at --"
Oliver handed her the keys to his flat. "My home is your home. See you later."
The bell on the shop door rang, and Oliver looked up to see a very confused policeman. "Sir," he said. "...I. We're going to need to take a statement from you, since you're involved. Somehow. Although, honestly, I'm not entirely certain how," he added, frowning at the crowd outside. "Are you acquainted with Victor Knight?"
"He was a client of mine, yes," said Oliver. He was sure the rest of their relationship would come to light if the police had more questions, but he didn't particularly want to go into it right now.
Sherri sighed. "I'll handle the calls. Ugh."
"Sherri, you're a lifesaver," said Oliver.
"Don't worry. I know," she said.
Oliver really wished Dot would stop haranguing him to get a smartphone, but for once he was glad he had a mobile, because he was beginning to think he was at the wrong baggage reclaim area. On the other hand, did Venetia's phone even work here? He started dialing anyway, but halfway through the number, he spotted a familiar total lack of fashion sense in the distance. She was wearing skintight gold trousers.
On the other hand, at least she was easy to spot. "Oliver!" she said. "How've you been?"
"Really well," he said. "Sherri's talking about retiring, though." He sighed. "But, that's life, isn't it? Where's the American contingent?" he asked. This year's get-together would be at Deidre and Mikel's restaurant, and most excitingly, a lot of new faces were (supposedly) showing up -- there was some kind of Google mailing list frippery Dot had set up, which Oliver refused to participate in on account of having made one too many excruciating Reply All mistakes in his life. So he hadn't talked to these people, but Venetia had, and she was insistent that he meet one of them before the party that night. "You're not trying to set me up with anyone, are you?" he asked. "Because you've got that smug look."
"I'm not!" said Venetia. "I promise. But, you know, if it turns out you like each other... Anyway, I think he stopped to help an old lady or something. He's a goody two-shoes, it's sort of ridiculous."
Oliver rolled his eyes. "So what's this paragon of moral virtue's name? Is he --"
A man -- a strangely familiar man -- hefted a garish pink suitcase off the conveyor belt. "I think this is yours?" he said to Venetia. He looked at Oliver, and he blushed. "I -- I don't know if you remember me, but --"
"Aaron," said Oliver. He couldn't quite believe it. He'd left Aaron behind in 1896. He'd even said goodbye.
Aaron smiled. He looked sort of relieved and sort of embarrassed and extremely good, actually, the twenty-first century's sad lack of interesting men's fashion aside. "Well, I always knew when you were lying about your age. I guess I never realized just how much you had been lying."
"I'm sorry," said Oliver. "I didn't realize! You should've said --"
"I didn't know," said Aaron. He was still blushing. "It wasn't until about 1920 that I figured it out, which -- I don't know why it took me so long. I don't know. I felt pretty stupid after that. Anyway, I -- I wanted to -- I was hoping we could -- you're really --"
Oliver grabbed him by the shirt and kissed him. He appreciated the small, surprised noise Aaron made, and the way his arms wrapped around Oliver's waist, and the fact that he'd never, never had the nerve to do this in public, not in all the centuries he'd ever been alive.
He pulled away. "Would you like to make up for lost time, maybe?"
"Yes," said Aaron. "Absolutely."