He didn’t look dangerous, not at first glance. Still, a girl can never be too careful on a blind date, and that’s why I’d insisted Mr. Sand meet me in a popular steak house nestled in a casino dead center on the Las Vegas strip. It was, I’d thought, the most public of all public places. Yet now, watching the way shadows from the muted lighting sought out the unhealthy hollows beneath his eyes and cheeks, and the way he toyed with his blue cheese and endive appetizer – identical to the one I’d scarfed down in seconds – I decided the most ominous thing about Mr. Sand was a deeply embedded issue with self-control, and the only thing I was in danger of dying from was boredom. Of course, that was before I really knew him. And before my death the very next day.
At the time I had no way of knowing Mr. Sand’s true intentions, not like now. Besides, who knew homicidal maniacs came wrapped in horse-faced packages with little to no fashion sense? Beyond that, he was so skinny his Adam’s apple bobbed like a buoy above the opening of his pressed shirt, while knobby bones protruded at both knuckles and wrists. Ichabod Crane in a poorly fitted suit. Not exactly intimidating.
Looks aside, the next mark against him was his first name.
“Ajax?” I repeated as our soups arrived, not quite sure I’d heard right.
He nodded, lifting his spoon, though I noted he didn’t actually use it. “Ajax.”
“Like the cleaner?”
His smile was tight. “Like the Greek warrior.”
I mean, really.
Cursing my sister for setting me up on yet another blind date – cursing myself for letting her – I nevertheless tried to plant my feet firmly on the bright side of things. At least this one could walk without dragging his knuckles on the ground. And even if the woman in me had recoiled at first sight, at least the photographer in me had something to do.
I tried to picture Ajax in a bank, as he’d already told me how the world’s financial industry would fall flat on its ass without him, but I couldn’t quite imagine him languishing in repose behind a desk. There was too much movement, too much latent energy in those snaking limbs for that. His fingers twined and untwined, his bony elbows rose to rest on the table only to drop a second later, and his eyes darted around the dining room, taking in everything but never fully settling. I’d like to still those relentless limbs with my camera, I decided. Take time to study those shifting eyes. See just who Mr. Sand became when seen in two dimensions instead of three.
He looked at me like he knew what I was thinking.
And it was that look, those eyes, that sent up the first red flag. I don’t mean the color, a blue so light it was nearly transparent, but more the way they tried to own me. I licked my lips, and they dropped to watch my tongue dart out. I ran a hand through my bobbed hair, and felt him following the movement so that my fingers fisted there. I exhaled deeply, forcing myself to relax, and for some reason that made him smile.
I was jumpy, I confess, but I recognized that hungry look. I’d seen it once before, long before I’d ever started dating. I’d hoped never to see it again.
“So, what do you do for a living?” Ajax finally asked, breaking the silence. “I mean, you don’t just live off daddy’s money, do you?” This was followed by a shallow ‘just joking’ guffaw, one belied by how carefully he continued to watch me.
I ran my fingers over the stem of my wine glass, wondering just how long it would take Ajax to notice that mine weren’t the hands of a debutante, but those of a fighter. “I take photographs.”
“Like weddings or models or something?”
“Like people. Shapes. Shadows. Usually night shots using natural lighting and gritty settings. Reality.”
“So,” he said, drawing the word out, “you don’t make money at it?”
He looked at me like I should apologize for something. He probably was a fucking banker, after all.
“Sounds like a waste of time,” he finally said, and turned away from my stare.
His little jab stung more than it should have. Normally I don’t care what people think, but lately looking at the world through a refracted lens, viewing the worth of places and people and objects in terms of light and shadow, black and white, wasn’t as satisfying as it used to be. Restless, I had recently begun taking more self-portraits than anything else; zeroing in on singular things like my knuckles, constantly red and calloused from nylon punching bags, or my eyes – right or left, rarely both – which were tawny and earth-colored during the day, but blackened like a clouded lake in the dark, or when I was extremely angry.
Instead of looking for enemies in the faces of strangers, I’d begun turning the camera on myself, and I didn’t need Freud or Jung, or even Dr. Phil, to tell me I was searching for something. Question was, would I like what I eventually found?
“Banking, on the other hand,” I began sweetly, once the server had delivered our entrees, “sounds absolutely captivating. Please don’t skip one fascinating little detail.”
Ajax’s mouth creased even thinner than his hairline. “God, I should have known by looking that you’re nothing like your sister.”
I didn’t really consider it an insult, but I was sure my eyes had gone black as tar. “And how, exactly, do you know what my sister’s like?”
“I read her profile in Playboy,” he said nastily, and shoved some saffron potatoes into his mouth.
I, in turn, settled my own fork on the side of my plate. So that was it.
Though similar in build, Olivia and I had taken vastly different approaches to both our sexuality and our lives. The issue Ajax was referring to had come out three months earlier, and while I didn’t approve of Olivia’s overt approach to sexuality, I understood the reason behind it. Ironically enough, it stemmed from the same origin as my own.
Good ol’ Ajax here had probably also read the recent article about the Archer family empire in Fortunes and Fates magazine:
‘Lacking the acute business sense of her gaming magnate father, Xavier, the article had read, and the brilliant social acumen of her glamorous sister, Olivia … and, indeed, any notably positive attributes whatsoever, Ms. Joanna Archer seems to have eschewed her public duty as one of the richest heiresses on the planet for a life of frivolity and self-interest.’
Self-interest I could understand, but frivolous? Like writing scathing gossip columns about other people’s lives was brain surgery?
So, it seemed my sister hadn’t given Ajax my phone number. In all probability, Olivia didn’t know him at all. Apparently he’d been counting on someone who looked and acted like a Playmate, and hoping perhaps I did have some redeeming social qualities. Perhaps my reported self-interest, along with my inheritance, could be funneled his way? Perhaps he’d have a chance with the token black sheep of the Archer dynasty?
Wrong, Ajax, I thought, picking up my wine glass. On all accounts.
“Look,” he said, spreading his hands before him as though discussing stock options. “I just came to Vegas for a good time. I thought I’d look you up since we seem to have some of the same interests…”
A.k.a. my money.
“…and see if you wouldn’t mind showing me around. That’s all. Why can’t we just have some fun?” When I only continued to stare, he dropped his bony elbows on the table with a force that shook the plates, and abandoned all pretext of civility. “Or, fine. Why don’t you pretend that you have a sense of humor?”
“I could,” I said, nodding slowly, “but then I’d have been laughing from the moment you walked in the door.” See? My sense of humor was as broad as anyone else’s.
I drew back at the venom in his voice, surprised my words had cut so deeply, so quickly. Then again, a fuse that short had probably been lit long before I came along. “What’s wrong, Ajax? Things not going according to plan? Let me guess, here you are in Vegas on some sort of pilgrimage, to forget for one weekend exactly how disappointing your life has turned out, and now mean, spoiled Joanna Archer is screwing it all up. Is that about right?”
I have this ability – I like to think of it as a gift, really – to see clean through to people’s sore spots. I hone in on a bruised psyche and press. Not nice, I know, but then Olivia was the Miss Congeniality in our family.
Ajax’s reptilian features had rearranged themselves as I spoke, and he now looked like a glowering python. “Thanks for the psychoanalysis, babe,” he spat, “but all I really wanted from this weekend were a couple of easy lays.”
This, I assumed, was where I was supposed to throw my wine in his face. I didn’t, though. I liked Chateau Le Pin, and took a long, considering sip of the vintage ’82 I’d made him buy me. “And what? Your mother wasn’t available?”
Ajax’s head jerked like I’d struck him, and the fidgeting that had accompanied the entire social farce abruptly ceased. Suddenly a different man sat there. It was like the still picture I’d imagined before, a person comfortable in his skin. A warrior living up to his name. Surprisingly, I was the first to blink.
“You like to argue,” he said, and it wasn’t a question. “You like to fight.”
He was right, I did. But suddenly I wasn’t exactly sure what I was up against.
“Insult my mother again,” he said in a ragged whisper, “and you’ll find yourself in a fight for your life.”
And just like that a bolt of lightning seared over the gilded room, arching across the beveled ceiling to snap like fangs between us. The air was a livewire, crackling so the lights, wall sconces – even the candles – flickered as if flinching, and an invisible force funneled around us, sucking all the energy in the room toward our table, and leaving me breathless. There, in the eye of that storm, I watched the flimsy skin layering Ajax’s bones melt away, altering his face into a slab of bone, teeth, and cavernously slanting eyes. His smooth skull grinned at me across the table, eyes aflame, while a banshee’s howl sprung from the gaping mouth.
I was half out of my seat before I caught myself, before I blinked … and the bony, aging banker returned, staring at me benignly. Nobody else in the room had moved. Nobody screamed. Classical music pulsed softly from artfully hidden speakers, and the steady thrum of conversation and clinking utensils blanketed the unnatural howl still rebounding in my mind. The table wasn’t spliced or singed, and the vanilla taper winked softly between us.
Ajax chuckled, his voice rumbling like thunder in his thin chest.
I stared at him, but it was as if an invisible curtain had risen between us, and I sensed nothing of his thoughts. No bruised ego, no unveiled sore spots to push. My little intuitive gift, it seemed, had abandoned me completely. I did know one thing, though. The bumbling tourist act was just that … an act. The man who sat before me was cruel, possibly insane, and most assuredly dangerous.
“What’s wrong, Joanna dear? Seeing things? Something, maybe, that reminds you of a sweltering summer night? Shadows lunging at you from the desert floor, perhaps?”
A tremor inched its way up my spine, and for the first time in a long while, I was at a loss of what to do. I was a frozen hare beneath that gaze, and Ajax simply waited, like a skilled predator.
I could call the maitre’d or security, I thought. Have Ajax eighty-sixed from the restaurant and casino, never allowed to return again. Though I wasn’t sure what reason I’d give. That I was having a bad time on this date? That the man before me had just flashed me with his freakin’ skeleton? That a monster really lurked beneath this flaccid, aging exterior?
Or that he knew something about me no one had a right to know?
“I told them it was you, you know,” he said, picking at his dry-aged Black Angus. “They didn’t believe me, they said it was too obvious, but I knew. I could scent you the moment you walked in the door.”
I forced myself to focus on that. “Scent me?”
“Yes. You smell like the desert sage in full bloom after a summer storm.” He wrinkled his nose before turning haughty again. “But you don’t even know that, do you? You haven’t been told who you are, or a single thing about your lineage. In fact, I’d say you’re about as helpless as an abandoned babe without a tit to suck.”
He laughed, and leaned in even further, closing the short distance between us. I battled the urge to run from the room like a screaming child, and instead sat my ground. As he’d said, I was a fighter.
“Now, I’m going to give you something else to psychoanalyze, Joanna Archer. It’ll probably be one of the most important things you ever learn, so pay careful attention.” He licked his lips, eyes steady on mine. “Pheromones. Do you know what they are?”
Thrown by the change of topic, I nonetheless forced a nonchalant shrug. “A chemical. A scent animals give off to attract others of the same species. So?”
“Not only the same species. Different species as well. Opposites. Enemies.” He let the last word linger on his tongue, slipping the syllables out the same way a priest would slip the sacrament in. I stared at those thin lips, wondering where he was going with this, where I fit in, and how I’d made an enemy out of a man I’d never met. Could he really be that sensitive about his mother?
“See, Joanna, you have an extra component to your biological mix. It’s weak, true, not yet fully developed, but it’s there. Like a rose not yet grown from bud to bloom. Or,” here he paused to draw in a deep breath, then exhaled slowly as if he found it sweet, “like the invisible note of fear a fox leaves behind as it flees a chase.”
My pulse points began to trip, hot and fast. Anorexic demon or not, he did not want to get me started on hunting and being hunted. I’d nearly a lifetime of experience of being one or the other, and there was a chip on my shoulder about it the size of a small state. “See, I’m like the hound, anxious to get on with the chase, and with a nose so precise I could drive you to the end of the earth.” He smiled serenely. “Guess what that makes you?”
“The hound master?”
The humor fell from his face again, and thunder rumbled along the walls. This time I was prepared, though, and didn’t flinch. Ajax opened his mouth to say something, but changed his mind. Instead, he took a slow sip from his glass of wine, swirling it languidly in its crystal bowl. I watched, transfixed by a single blood-red drop studding his pale bottom lip. The lips moved.
“Lesson number one. Know thy enemy.”
And he blew outwards. Blended with the lacy texture of aged Bordeaux was a scent so fetid it brought bile to my throat. It was toxic decay, a concentration of acidity and rot rising so sharply the fumes burned the lining from my nose. I coughed, covering my lower face, but kept my eyes on his while trying to process what my nose was telling me. It was him. He was somehow emitting, or spewing, his essence onto my senses. And my nose, never this sensitive before, told me he was dead inside. Decomposing, even as we sat there.
“Now you’ll know me forever … both where I go, and where I’ve been.” He smiled again, and his grin was as rancid and spoilt as his fermented breath. “Even the mere thought of me will conjure my scent in your mind.”
I forced myself to swallow back the last of the bile.
“It’ll be a link between us,” he continued, winking obscenely. “My gift to you.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said, palm still cupped over my mouth, and I didn’t, but I could suddenly smell him everywhere. Why hadn’t I been able to moments before? And how could everyone else consume food in a place that reeked of death and decay?
“You don’t know, do you? And that’s going to make it all the more precious when I kill you.” His fingers twined, untwined. “I just love to kill the innocent.”
Slowly, I lowered my hand from my face. I’d been called a number of things in my adult life, but innocent had never been one of them. Neither, for that matter, had passive. Folding my arms across my chest, I let my fingers curl into fists. “And how, exactly, do you intend on doing that?”
“With my right hand,” he said, pleased I’d asked. “And the serrated poker beneath my jacket.”
He lifted one side of his coat, and my breath lodged somewhere between my throat and chest cavity. Sure enough, a multi-hooked blade as long and thin as a fencer’s sword glinted in the candlelight, winking at me. He lowered the lapel. All around us hushed chatter continued, an incongruous contrast to the stillness that had slowed every cell of my body. I lifted my eyes, and this time I didn’t have to blink. The monster was there. Even if I was the only one who could see him.
“Now get up,” he said, “and slowly walk to the door.”
No way was I going to let this crackerjack near my back … even if every instinct in my body was crying out for me to bolt, and quick. I might be able to outrun him, he certainly didn’t look fast, but then he hadn’t looked psychotic either.
“Get up,” he repeated, louder, “or I will kill every person in this dining room, starting with the woman behind me.”
My eyes flicked to the woman in question, a petite blonde with hair piled fashionably atop her head to reveal a creamy white nape. Her back was to us, her head momentarily tilted back in a soundless laugh. With that thin barbed blade, Ajax could rend the tendons from her neck before she’d even caught her next breath.
Her companion, a handsome man with sparkling eyes, caught me looking and smiled. I looked away. It was the smile of a person never touched by violence, a look I’d never worn in my adult life. I doubted my dinner partner ever had either.
“I don’t care,” I lied, returning Ajax’s stare.
He laughed as if we, too, were enjoying a pleasant evening in each other’s company. “Of course you do. See, that’s why you’re the good guy and I’m the bad guy.” The humor dropped from his face, along with his voice. “Now get your ass out of that chair.”
I remained seated.
The smooth white bones beneath his cheeks flashed. Then there was the slight rustle of fabric, the unmistakable chink of a weapon being unsheathed beneath the table, and Ajax’s shoulder rotated in a motion that would end in a killing blow. My stomach clenched, but still I didn’t move. He growled, and it was an expectant, warning sound.
“Wait!” I said, as his muscles tensed. He stared back at me with those soulless eyes, and I knew he’d have done it. He’d have killed that woman without blinking, and the man across from her would never smile again.
“See?” Ajax said quietly. “I told you you’re one of the good guys.”
I didn’t answer, just pushed away from the table and rose, my eyes never leaving his. But then I did something even I couldn’t have anticipated. I picked up my wine glass, swirled, and put it to my lips.
Perhaps it was the intensity of the moment, or maybe Ajax’s lesson in odorous acuity really had hit home, but the flavors I inhaled from that glass were the most complex, the most vibrant, and the richest I’d ever tasted. I could scent the clay of the plateau vineyard in France where the fruit had been harvested, and somehow I knew the grapes had been picked on a windless, rainy day. The juice had been aged in French oak, and the winemaker had regularly tested the barrel with a steel ladle, his artist’s palate telling him when, exactly, to go to bottle. Inhaling all these things, things I had no right to sense or see, they became a part of me, their knowledge burrowing into my bones.
I drank deeply, almost ecstatically, like the saints you see on the ceilings of cathedrals, the martyrs looking expectantly toward heaven in their final, lingering moments on earth. All the while Ajax watched me with those glassy death-eyes, like he could tell exactly what I was doing and feeling and tasting. I lowered the glass, as he had done earlier, then blew in his direction.
He froze, alarm furrowing his brow. I don’t know what he scented of me just then, but it wasn’t the fear he so clearly expected. Still, he regained his composure quickly, and jerked his head toward the exit. Unwilling to let go of the wine that still held so much life and passion and vitality in it, I turned with it still in my hand. Then, fingering the stem like a nun with her favorite rosary beads, I slowly made my way out the door.
On a travel sabbatical for 2017 -- instead, catch me on the Web!