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A TAINT IN THE BLOOD

by S.M. Stirling   <joatsimeon@aol.com>


 

CHAPTER SEVEN:

 

Something chirped in her ear. Ellen woke, yawned, stretched, and frowned. The place smelled different from her own bedroom, and not like Adrian’s either, with its faint undertones of expensive tobacco and leather-bound books and juniper. Not bad—fresh linen, flowers, coffee, a spicy scent like eucalyptus—but different. She whimpered as memories crashed in on her. Then she realized she was alone in the big rumpled bed, and relaxed. The chirping came again; she turned her head and saw a Blackberry resting on the pillow next to her.

This is yours, the note on the screen said. Schedule loaded. First, go get checkup at Clinic: 10:00 am. Doctor Duggan fully briefed. Don’t be late or I will spank you.

The time display read 9:00. “Am I going to...” she started to mutter to herself. Then: “Of course I’m going to go for this checkup. She’s not kidding about that spanking. I don’t think she means just a pat, either.”

She tore through showering and pulling on the cotton dress and sandals provided, clipped the instrument to her belt and grabbed a fluffy kiwi pastry and a slice of fruit-bread from the breakfast trolley. She scarcely noticed the quiet sumptuousness of the great room and the fixtures, except the painting hung to the left of the bed, Adrienne’s side. That caught her eye, enough to make her bend close for an expert’s quick appraisal.

What a splendid reproduction! she thought, the professional taking over from the personal for a moment; she’d seen the original during her student years at NYU, on a field trip to France. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better one.

A small plaque below had a poem inlaid in gold on some dark tropical wood:

 

And when I turned, no face I saw

 For the shadow was my own

 Death Angel’s shadow.”

 

That was certainly appropriate. The painting was by Schwabe, La Mort et le Fossoyeur, with the Death Angel shown as a slender dark-haired woman poised over the old gravedigger in the snowy cemetery, her wings making a beautiful curve like a scythe-blade against the willow-twigs and tilted headstones. Ellen had always liked it, as far as she liked any Symbolist work, and the reproduction was striking; it caught the cruel impersonal compassion on Azrael’s face beautifully. Then she looked more closely, reaching out to touch and then taking back her hand.

“Wait a minute,” she whispered. “Gouache, watercolor and pencil, that’s right. And it’s old, not just artificially aged. Look at the structure of the micro-cracks. And the frame is about a century old too! It isn’t a reproduction. My God, the Louvre would never willingly part with this, not for any amount of money!”

Inside her head she could hear: Oh, quite unwillingly, chérie. That didn’t need any spooky telepathy.

For an instant she sat on the bed, winded and gasping. After shock came a wave of anger; to have something like this hanging in your bedroom, exposed to all the possible accidents...

The Blackberry beeped at her, a half-hour warning. She fumbled at it until it came up with a map of the route to the clinic, and ran—that was another thing she could do well, even in sandals; out into the hallway, down a service stair, out a rear entrance, down a long pathway, out through a boundary wall and gate into what looked like a smallish town or large village tucked under the hill where the casa grande sat. It wasn’t even far enough to raise much of a sweat, not in the cool springlike weather of a fine February day in the California lowlands.

The clinic wasn’t quite what Ellen would have expected; well-equipped, cheery, an efficient-looking receptionist, a waiting room with the usual magazines and a TV... even the smell was nicer than usual, with flower-and-damp-earth scents wafting through an open window to cut the standard ozone and disinfectant. She had just enough time to stop breathing deeply before:

“Dr. Duggan will see you next, Ms. Tarnowski.”

A renfield doctor willing to sell his soul to the devil, she thought, as David Cheung passed her on his way out, with a smirk and a nod and a fresh dressing on his neck. Or maybe... he’s more like a vet?

The doctor turned out to be a her, a pleasantly plain middle-aged woman with a slight Scottish burr and a pile of faded ginger hair pulled back severely. She smiled ironically at Ellen’s relief as she ushered her into the examination room. That looked conventional too, if up-scale, except for the two replica skeletons in opposite corners. One of the skeletons looked a little odd in ways she couldn’t name.

There were even family photos over the desk, a Chinese man and three striking Hapa children, two girls and a boy, at various ages up to the mid-teens.

Connections, she thought. Everyone’s story has connections that spin out until they’ve got the whole world in the web. How did... they... buy or knuckle hem? Why’s she working at Hacienda Literally Sucks?

 “Dr. Fiona Duggan,” she said, and shook hands, a brisk no-nonsense gesture.

From her expression she guessed her new patient’s thoughts.

“Everyone at this clinic is a doctor, Ms. Tarnowski, and a good one. But even if we were no professionals... lass, you’re the safest person for miles around. Think it through.”

Oh. Don’t mess with the tiger’s bone.

“Bet there’s a low crime rate here,” she said slowly. “Unauthorized crimes at least.”

“Ye’d win that wager.”

A thought struck her. “Except murder-suicides?”

A grim smile. “Here, murder or any other serious crime is a form of suicide. A slow, painful form.”

“Oh.”

“If it will make you feel better, I was recruited as a second-year medical student in Edinburgh with—I’ll say it myself—brilliant marks. And incurable pancreatic cancer; a classic rapid-onset adenocarcinoma. They offered to make the cancer cells have fatal accidents.”

“You accepted.”

“And so would you, I’d wager.”

“Why do they need a doctor, then?”

She smiled. “The Power is powerful, but it needs knowledge to apply. Imagine them trying to correct your humors... only, we don’t have humors. We have cells. And there are accidents and traumas and plenty of things too small for their attention. Let’s get started.”

The only difference between this and the last exam she’d had in Santa Fe was the state-of-the-art equipment; instant blood analysis with only a tiny pinprick sample, just for starters, and the new thinbar scanners that could do things only massive hospital units had been able to manage a few years before. She dressed and sat on the edge of the examining table as the doctor finished tapping at her keyboard.

“Well, Ms. Tarnowski, as no doubt your previous doctor has told you, you’re in excellent health. I wish all my patients showed your degree of care with diet and exercise. You might be interested to know that you’re also an eighteen-point-nine on the Alberman Scale.”

“Alberman?”

“The test for nocturnis genes—the ones linked to the Power, of which there are between seventy-five and one hundred, mostly recessives. Average is around twelve percent.”

“Ah... thanks, I guess.”

“Aye. You should be thankful. There are behavioral complications with a twenty-to-forty result that often have unfortunate consequences.”

“Unfortunate?”
“Giles de Rais. Stalin, Hitler, King Leopold of the Congo Free State... Or Joan of Arc.”

“Joan of Arc was unfortunate?”
“Think of how she ended.”

“Oh.”

“Now, it’s your special health circumstances we’ll move on to next.”

Special health circumstances! she thought. I suppose everyone needs euphemisms.

“You’ve been subject to three feeding attacks so far, correct? Typical attack bites on the inner right elbow, the inner left knee, and the smaller one on the left hand.”

“Right. None of them seem... infected, or anything. Just slightly discolored.”

“Nor will they be. Homo sapiens nocturnis—”

“Wha’?” she said.

She snorted and pointed at one of the skeletons. “Them. The Shadowspawn. Which is a ridiculously melodramatic name... Their bites heal cleanly. It’s halfway between predation and parasitism, ecologically, and I’ve done some fascinating research... well, another time. There’s also a coagulant which acts when the wound is exposed to air, and a psychotropic element. A drug.”

“I... couldn’t move while she was, um, feeding. I didn’t feel numb or anything, just didn’t want to move.”

“Yes, standard initial reaction. That effect’s strong, but wears off quickly when the mouth is removed. There’s an addictive euphoric, too, I’m afraid, wi’ a cumulative effect after multiple exposures.”

She froze. “How addictive?”

“A bit worse than nicotine.”

Ellen relaxed, and heard her breath woosh out. “That’s not so bad.”

“Mmm, Ms. Tarnowski, nicotine is more addictive than heroin, clinically speaking. The effect on the victim is similar to MDMA, but without the side-effects.”

At Ellen’s blank look, she went on: “Ecstasy is the street name. Intense feelings of intimacy, and sharply diminished fear and anxiety. If you could synthesize it the market would be huge.”

“Oh, Christ,” she said, hugging her shoulders. “How often...”

“That’s unpredictable. You’ll no’ be her only source of blood, of course; that would be... unfortunate. For them the blood itself is an addictive drug, particularly if it’s primed by strong emotion. I’ve not been able to experiment on that side of things as much as I’d like.”

“The marks aren’t...” Ellen said, and made a stabbing gesture with two fingers at the inside of her elbow. “It’s more like a little line with a bit of a curve.”

There was a ghoulish fascination to the talk; and it might be useful. Something that tickled at the back of her mind said so. Duggan nodded enthusiastically and went to one of the skeletons. She pushed back the upper part of the skull until there was a bony gape and pointed.

“This is a replica. It’s the maxillary central incisors, d’you see? Advanced so they’re a bit proud and slightly inclined inward. Larger canines would be silly in a human-shaped mouth if you want a clean cut along a vein. These have microserration so when they’re presented at just the right angle they slice like steak knives; the lips and tongue arrange the flesh so that the feeding bite is verra precise...”

She wrenched herself away from the details and went back to the screen. “Now, there was a sexual assault with at least one of the feeding attacks, correct? From your reaction to the pelvic exam.”

Ellen flushed. “Ah... yes.”

And that utterly weird thing in the restaurant, she thought. It’s absurd to be concerned about something like embarrassment now but I’m still cringing at the thought of that.

“Only some very minor stretching or bruising, so we don’t have to worry about that.”

We don’t have to sit on it! I do!”

“Sorry for the physician’s ‘royal we’. Any difficulty in walking or urination?”

“No. Just a bit of a sting when I pee.”

“I assume the penetration was manual?”

She thought about that for a moment. “Umm, yes. That’s what caused the chafing feeling, at least. I don’t remember it all.”

Thank God, she added to herself.

“Normal with a traumatic memory.”

She handed over a small container with a tube and applicator inside.

“Here’s a topical cream. You’re fortunate the attack had that pattern.”

“I am?” she said, trying to control the rising tone of her voice.

“Yes,” she said dryly. “The likelihood of a fatal feeding attack is much lower that way. There’s a mutual exchange of blood when they mate among themselves; in small quantities, but always, as far as I know. I’m no’ sure if it’s cultural or instinctual.”

“Oh.”

“Try to cooperate as much as you can the next time it happens; that’ll reduce the chance of lesions.”

“Just lie back, I suppose,” she said dully.

“No. The other thing that makes a fatal attack more likely is passivity or depression on the part of the victim. For lucies, as the slang here has it—.”

“Where does that come from?”

“Ah, you’ve no read Stoker? You should—if only for a laugh. And the film, the one with Anthony Hopkins chewing the carpet, is even funnier.”

“I... don’t like horror films. They upset me.”

“Well, you’re in one now. Lucies. Some of them moved on to other positions here. Some have just... stayed. And some have died in what I think is probably inconceivable agony.”

Slowly and cruelly and beautifully,” she quoted with a shudder.

“Aye. And that’s no even the worst thing that can happen. So... well, a doctor can speak frankly. Make the experience of feeding on you as satisfying for our Doña Demonio as possible, because your life does depend on it.”

“Thanks for the advice,” Ellen said; she could hear the mixture of sincerity and sarcasm in her own voice.

That was probably unwise, but she couldn’t be strategizing all the time.

Or I’ll go stark raving mad. This is the sort of advice a horse doctor would give to other horses; don’t fight the saddle and signals or it’s the bit and spurs and whip for you, and the knacker’s yard if you won’t perform at all. I think a lot of these renfields must be crazy. And I bet that they do have a suicide problem.

The physician smiled. “I’m not easily offended. A doctor can’t afford to be. I’ll help you as much as I can, Ms. Tarnowski, but that isn’t much. I made my choice long ago, and I have a family to think of, as well.”

A screen-pen pointed at the skeleton. “That’s the world’s dominant subspecies. Not us. Even just in the body they’ve advantages, and there’s no fighting the Power at all, whatever the terrorists say.”

“Terrorists?”

“A few madmen,” she scowled. “Killers who’ll murder wholesale, men and women and children. The nocturnis at least have their instincts to blame.”

That’s interesting. The Resistance? And they think you’re a collaborator, Doctor? How could you fight the power? With excitement: Could Adrian be in it?

Duggan shook her head. “If you have severe nightmares or problems sleeping, see me, and I may be able to get permission for a mild sedative. We’ve some good ones.

The receptionist stuck her head in. “Your next appointment, doctor. Ms. Mandelbaum and her daughter; the earache.”

“Right, that’s you, then, Ms. Tarnowski. Here’s your exercise schedule and a prescription for a dietary supplement. Lots of fluids, mind!”

 

@@@

 

Ellen looked down at her new Blackberry. Lunch, 12:30. You’re not on the menu. This time! and a happy-face symbol with a little blood drooling out of one corner of the semicircle mouth.

“Oh, that’s just side-splitting,” she muttered to herself. Then: “Get a grip on your thoughts.”

Which was about like telling yourself not to think of an elephant.

The main house was up the hill again, through California-gorgeous gardens only a little subdued for winter, with everything from palm-trees to rose pergolas and velvety green lawns and ha-has, brick retaining walls and espaliered lemon trees. It was built in classic Spanish Revival like the town, if in a grander fashion; from the looks at the height of the style’s popularity in the earlier part of the 20th century, like something out of Santa Barbara’s Montecito district. There were Andalusian towers and red Roman-tile roofs and earth-toned stucco on walls covered in sheets of purple-and-crimson bougainvillea, with colored tile Moorish-style insets over the arched entranceways, and plenty of wrought iron. Inside...

The architecture’s first-class if a bit retro, but my, there’s some interesting stuff here! If you can get over the number that should be somewhere else. At least they’re being taken care of.

An eclectic selection; Old Masters, Impressionists and post-Impressionists, some late-19th century Academics like Leighton, of the type that had become so popular again, Hoppers and Wyeths. One sculpture she longed to examine, just on the suspicion that it actually was Rodin’s Andromeda. All with no particular organization, as if someone or several successive someones who could fulfill every whim had simply put up anything that took their fancy wherever they chose, like an omnipotent version of William Randolph Hearst.

Which is pretty much what happened, I suspect. Except that everything is good of its kind, if muddled.

The map function guided her efficiently, and she ended up in a large airy room set up as a lounge-study-office, with bookshelves and big mahogany tables and a comprehensive electronics suite; one wall was glass doors between Romanesque arches, open to the mild afternoon warmth and to the sight of a big bowl-shaped fountain plashing in the court outside. Adrienne was sitting—

With a little girl on her lap. Oh, ick, please God not... no, wait a minute, that child’s the spitting image of her. Has to be a close relative. Couldn’t be hers, could she? And the boy’s as close as a fraternal twin can get. Close as Adrian and Adrienne.

A Great Dane sat beside the boy; the child had his arm around the beast’s shoulders, and it was nearly as tall as he. It sat looking up at the Shadowspawn woman adoringly and beating its tail on the floor; then it stood, swiveled its barrel head up and came over towards Ellen with tongue hanging and claws clicking on the diamond-pattern buff tiles of the floor. Ellen slowed step by step, then froze.

This is silly, she thought. It’s just a dog. She’s the dangerous animal in the room!

The fear didn’t go away. “What’s the matter?” Adrienne asked. “That’s a delightful flash of apprehension there, but why?”

“Large dogs... make me nervous. I was badly bitten once. Sorry. I can’t help it.”

The Shadowspawn snapped her fingers and pointed, and the dog left after giving her a curious sniff. She relaxed...

And now I can remember I have something to be really frightened of.

Suddenly she looked after the dog. Shouldn’t it be barking, or going crazy?

“No, dogs aren’t frightened of us, chérie,” Adrienne said dryly. “That’s Terminators you’re thinking of, which don’t exist.”

Oh, Jesus, but I wish it was robots!

Adrienne grinned; Ellen could see the slight difference in the incisors.

Adrian was always been very careful not to bite or scrape me, now that I think back. Even when things got a little rough, or once more than a little rough. Everyone said ‘they say they’re sorry but they really aren’t’... but I think he was. A special case.

“I’m sure he was sorry. What exactly was it he did... Oh, goodness, but that’s an arresting image! You might have smothered! Not to mention spraining your neck. You and I must try something analogous sometime.”

She felt her face go crimson. Then she saw what the little girl was doing; she had her hands on the table, cupped as if sheltering a candle-flame. Within was a tiny yellow feather, like a shaped golden dust-mote... and it was bobbing in midair, slowly turning. For a moment she simply stared in wonder. Then her mind lurched:

If you could do that with a feather, you could do it inside someone, couldn’t you?

The feather fell, and the girl’s face scrunched up.

“The air didn’t wanna do it! It slipped. You should teach me some more special Words and I wouldn’t slip. Please, maman? I don’t ever say them aloud unless you’re there or the cousins or someone.”

“Nyah, I did it beehhhh-tttter!” her probably-brother said.

“No, you didn’t, Weasel Two,” Adrienne said decisively. “And I will most certainly not teach either of you more Mhabrogast yet. It’s dangerous if you can’t pronounce it properly.”

He looked heartbreakingly like a younger Adrian, in shorts and t-shirt and sneakers, his black hair cut in a bowl-shape like his sister’s. Her mouth began to droop towards a sob, until Adrienne hugged her and kissed the top of her head.

“That’s splendid work with the feather. Most children can’t do that for another year or two. What else have you been doing? Besides your lessons, I hope.”

“Feeding the snake,” the boy said. “Gerbils, mostly. Two. But now it just sleeps.”

“Well, it won’t want any more for a while. Ellen, these are my demon spawn; Weasel One—Leila—and Weasel Two, Leon. One and Two for order of arrival. Children, this is Ellen. She’ll be living with us now. Don’t you tease her, or you’ll be sorry. Now run along.”

The girl slipped off her lap. She lifted a strikingly beautiful tow-haired china doll in a frilly dress from the floor beside her mother’s chair. The child looked at it consideringly for a moment, and then up at the stranger.

“Hello, Ellen. This is my new dolly. She has hair and eyes like yours. See, blue, they close and open if you rock her like this.”

“Ah...” Ellen thought, looking down into the innocent face.

And how do you address the Lady Demon’s demon-spawn?

“Hello, Miss Leila. What’s her name?”

“Lucy,” the girl said firmly. A broad smile. “’Cause she’s my Lucy.”

That was when she saw the miniature bandage around the doll’s neck. The children walked away, then suddenly ran, giggling, out into the courtyard.

“Bit of an experiment, so to say,” Adrienne said. “Often we foster our children out until after puberty. But I’m actually rather fond of my two little weasels... in moderation. Mind you, puberty’s the test.”

Then Adrienne shrugged and continued: “Come.” An inclination of the head. “We’ll have lunch over here in the nook. There’s a bit of a problem we should discuss.”

Adrienne rose; she was wearing jodhpurs with leather inserts on the inside of the thighs, polished riding boots and a real polo shirt, with a riding crop in her hands. The golden-brown eyes stared into hers; she remembered with a slight shock that she was an inch taller than the Brézé woman. You always forgot that, somehow, just as she’d been surprised again at Adrian not being tall every time they met again. A thought sprang unbidden and unstoppable into Ellen’s mind...

“Betty Page comics?” Adrienne said. “I’m not nearly that pneumatic, and I don’t do high heels. I’m actually wearing this because I’m going riding later today. Hmmm. Visualize... yes, I see your point, though. I wonder if one could do that in real life?”

A noiseless servant in a high-collared white jacket brought two fluffy ham-and-scallion omelets with glazed crusts into the nook, along with a salad of fresh greens, walnuts and slices of small tangy orange and glasses of a pale yellow wine.

“Ah... you said we have a problem?”

“Yes. Your former employer, Giselle Demarcio. She’s been making enquires, trying to trace you—which means, trying to trace me. That really will not do.”

Anxiety turned into real fear with a sudden cold jolt, and the light omelet assumed the texture of mud.

“Please, don’t hurt her! She’s just, I’m a friend as well as an employee, my place burned down, she’s probably worried sick about me.”

A hand reached out and cupped her jaw. Something tickled behind her eyes, and she started to pull back.

“Don’t squirm if you’re concerned for your friend,” Adrienne said—not threatening but abstracted. “This is delicate. I’m probing for memories. It’s not like playing back a computer file. They’re unwritten and rewritten every time they’re called up; it needs concentration. Don’t resist. That’s right...”

She murmured something under her breath; Ellen felt the words as sound, but they didn’t resolve themselves into anything she could recall an instant later. She forced her body to relax and tried to think about nothing. The tickling grew, as if tendrils were growing into the structure of her brain, rooting, opening, merging with the folds and pathways. Things moved in the corners of her vision; little flecks of light swam across her vision, the way they did when you closed your eyes, or opened them in a perfectly dark room. Her head felt full, a squirming sensation of penetration.

Then she began to remember, impossibly vivid jerky chains of images, as much like briefly reliving as ordinary memory. Herself paddling in the waves on the Jersey shore, the cold salt shock on chubby toddler feet and the taste of salt on her lips and the scuttling alienness of a sand-crab. Her father crying at the kitchen table the night her mother died, and the scent of cheap whiskey and the taste of fear. The first kiss with Paul and the book of art prints falling off the sofa between them, the first day at the gallery, the way Adrian had smiled as he extended his hand over the net and the feel of his palm and fingers—they blurred together, faded, whirled.

It stopped with a grinding shock as Adrienne released her jaw and broke eye-contact; there was a moment of pain, like whiplash of the mind, then it faded.

“Yes, I see. Still, Dmitri is fond of a saying: when a person causes you a problem, remember, no person, no problem. I don’t want my little visit to attract any attention.”

“Look, if I tell her I’m OK...” A hooded glance. She went on desperately: “Please. I’m begging you, please. I’ll do anything, just don’t hurt her. She’s always been good to me. Please.

“I do enjoy it when you beg, chérie,” Adrienne said, with a lazy smile. “And as I said, it’s really no longer so essential to keep perfect secrecy...”

She picked up a control bar and thumbed it; a medium-sized screen flipped up from the center of the table.

“I love these things,” Adrienne said absently. “It lets you interact without having to smell everyone. We Shadowspawn have become friendly tout court compared to the way things were. Scoot over so you’ll be in the pickup zone.”

Another smile, at a thought that flitted through Ellen’s mind:

“No, you don’t have to strip this time. It would be socially inappropriate. The number?”

“Uh... the videoconference code—”

The query went through; then accepted came up on the screen. The image was a little grainy and jerky at first; Giselle had never thought it worthwhile to spend much money on her office system. Then it sharpened to bell-tone clarity. Ellen had never been much interested in hardware, but you couldn’t be in the arts these days—particularly the selling side—without knowing something about what the systems could do. That meant real capacity, particularly since there was no CGI-style surface gloss to the improvement.

“Uh... hi, Giselle. I’m here at Adrian’s sister’s place, I thought you might be worrying—”

“Ellen!” Giselle’s sharp hook-nosed, middle-aged face lit up. “You’re OK! Thank God!”

Her voice had a slight East Coast big-city edge, overlain with Wellesley. She went on breathlessly:

“Your apartment burned down, there was talk about arson and a mysterious man with a gun chased the Lopez’ out—”

Ellen let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding.

“—nobody knew where you were, nobody’s at Adrian’s but his housekeeper, what’s going on?”

“Uh... I’m OK, Gis. Really. No harm done.”

Apart from the blood-drinking and the torture and rape and the speculation about how pleasurable it would be to kill me in an artistic fashion and feel my life flicker out. I must be a lot more in control of myself than I thought I was. I’m not screaming or babbling.

Where are you? Do you need a place to stay? Ummm, if you’re actually OK, you realize this is a working day? We’ve got the Cliffords—”

“Ms. Demarcio,” Adrienne cut in, her voice like a purr felt through velvet.

Giselle stared at her with what Ellen recognized as nervous courage, like a bird ruffling its feathers and rearing back at a cat. Owning a quirky, successful gallery in art-happy Santa Fe didn’t make you rich and powerful. It did mean you met the genuine article often enough to recognize them.

“Yes, Ms. Brézé?”

“Ellen is a bit upset, what with the fire, and some personal things. So she’s decided to come out here to my place and, ah, help catalogue my family’s collection. She needs a change of scene and pace for a while.”

A sharp glance at the two of them; she saw her boss’ eyes narrow. Giselle had always been good at reading body language. Ellen made herself relax from her stiff brace, sway a little towards Adrienne. She smiled and nodded as the Shadowspawn put a hand on her shoulder, winding a lock of pale-yellow hair around one finger.

“That’s right, Gis. You know things were a bit, ah, rocky for me the past couple of weeks anyway.”

The bright black eyes darted back and forth again.

“Ellen, you need to settle the insurance, the police want to talk to you, you lost all your stuff. You should get your ass back to Santa Fe from wherever-it-is. All I could find out was that you got on some plane at the airport and went away!”

“No, no, that’s all being handled. Really, I’m sorry as all hell to leave you in the lurch like this. You’ve been really good to me. But I need to get away. To... clear things up. And the collection here... unbelievable! I’m happy.”

A snort. “Ellen Tarnowski, I told you that Adrian was creepy. Told you that these old-money Euro types are bad news for ordinary people who’re just jumping on a trampoline while they’re flying. Intersecting trajectories aren’t a meeting of true minds. I told you months ago that he was treating you like a mushroom and dumping him would be a good idea. Switching to fucking your brains out with his twin sister is not! And no, I’m not going to deny the evidence of my own eyes at the restaurant. If that wasn’t real, you should be in Hollywood, girl, not Santa Fe!”

Ellen gave a panic-stricken glance aside. Adrienne was smiling again.

“Ms. Demarcio, your concern for Ellen is touching. But there are family dynamics at play here you don’t understand. Nor is it really any of your business with whom she is, as you so elegantly put it, fucking her brains out.”

“Pardon my French.”

“Ce n’est-pas rien,” Adrienne said. “You found my brother Adrian, how is it, creepy?”

Giselle nodded. “I don’t care who knows it, either.”

“No, you’re right. Adrian is creepy, from your point of view. He is also, as you put it, old money. So am I. That apparently does not bother Ellen, eh? And my forbearance for well-intentioned interference in my private life is not infinite.”

“No, Gis, I’m, umm, really having a great time,” Ellen said brightly. “Out of this world.”

“Here’s the number on her new Blackberry,” Adrienne said helpfully, and tapped on her control bar. “Do feel free to call, but not too often.”

Baffled, the older woman looked at Ellen. “OK, you’re a big grown-up type person, Ellen. Just remember that you’ve got somewhere to go. I’ll hold your job for you—indefinite unpaid leave, OK?”

Ellen felt tears prickle at her eyes. “I... I really... thanks, Gis. You’re a good one.”

 

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Copyright © 2009-2010 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


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