Dreams of Shreds and Tatters: Chapter One
4 years ago
Halloween night, and shrieks and howls drifted off Granville Street. Parties staggered in and out of clubs and down the sidewalks, a dizzying confusion of music and laughter and shouting, sequins and feathers, masks and paint. People dressed in shiny new skins, searching for opportunities to shed them. Groping hands and sticky candy kisses, tricks and treats in darkened corners.
Farther south, across the bridge, the chaos thinned and the night stilled. In the dark loft above the Morgenstern Gallery, Blake Enderly leaned against the window, staring through the ghost of his reflection to the street below. Black and orange fliers scattered like fallen leaves across the damp sidewalk, trampled into soggy pulp as a gaggle of late arrivals hurried north to join the press. A pair of pixies in glittering wings and too-short skirts huddled together beneath one umbrella, shouting at their companions to hurry. Their friends—a trio of pirates and a blood-splattered bride—only laughed. A figure in a black cloak and mask trailed behind.
Blake laughed too, a soft chuckle that fogged the rain-streaked glass. A sigh spread the mist further; he envied them the dark and cold and excitement. There were no costumes here tonight, no sweat-fog or throbbing speakers. Only soft music and conversation spilling through the connecting door from the next studio, muted laughter and the unsteady glow of candlelight.
Below, the pixies cursed and left the others behind, the clatter of their heels fading into the night. Their friends followed, until only the man in the mask remained, caught in the glow of a street lamp. He lingered there, looking up.
The tipsy warmth in Blake's stomach faded, replaced by a prickling chill. He raised a hand to wipe the glass and froze half way, unwilling to move, to draw attention to himself.
Just a man in a mask. But he wasn't sure it was a man. The mask was a featureless black oval that swallowed light. Everything about the figure was the same matte black, liquid and unbroken. The face had no eyes, but Blake couldn't shake the certainty that it watched him all the same.
Shuddering, he stepped back. His heel caught an easel frame, and the sudden clatter sent a queasy thrill of adrenaline through him. He grabbed the frame to steady it, saving a canvas from toppling over. When he glanced back at the window, the street was empty.
"Hey." A shadow filled the doorway, accompanied by a purposeful boot-scuff and the rap of knuckles on the frame.
"Hey," Blake said. He nearly laughed at himself as his panic faded, but the electric tingle in his fingers lingered. He took a deep breath, letting the layered scents of paint and chalk and chemicals calm him.
"Are you hiding in here?" Alain asked, stepping out of the fall of light into the cool shadows of the studio. His voice was dry and raspy, too deep for his narrow chest. A whiskey-and-cigarettes voice from a dentist's son who'd never smoked. He did a good Tom Waits karaoke. "You're not brooding, are you?" A joke, but his eyebrows quirked in a more serious question. Are you all right?
"I'm fine. I just needed a minute."
Alain moved closer, brushing his shoulder against Blake's. He held a glass in one hand, and the sharp, bitter fumes cut through the dusty air. "Disappointed?"
About the party, he meant, about the quiet night. Blake had told him stories about Halloweens in Connecticut, the old white house strung with purple and orange lights, bats and ghosts and guardian jack-o-lanterns. The costumes and parties and graveyard excursions. He missed it, missed Liz and all their friends. He caught himself twisting the silver ring on his right hand absently.
Blake leaned his head against Alain's, grounding himself in the familiar texture of his boyfriend's hair. Thick and soft, brittle at the ends from the bleach and dyes that stripped away his natural black. This month's brilliant peacock green had faded to a yellower absinthe shade. His own hair, plain brown and unbound, fell over both their shoulders. The window showed their reflection, faded as an overexposed photograph.
It felt unreal, like a snapshot of someone else's life. Eight months together, and they made it work. Blake had even stopped waking up next to Alain with the terrible certainty that this would be the day it fell apart. Most days, at least.
"No. I'm not disappointed." He was happy here. That thought scared him more than any ghosts or goblins or faceless monsters. Alain turned his face for a kiss, and Blake's nose wrinkled at the bitterness of alcohol and citrus. "What are you drinking?"
Alain raised his glass; dark liquor glowed sienna in the light. "Black rum, coffee liqueur, Campari, and bitters. I think I'll call it a bête noire."
"The bane of your existence?"
Alain winked, a sweep of black lashes and silver flash of brow ring. "If I have any more it might be." He threaded his arm through Blake's. "Come on. Rainer wants to talk to everyone."
"Dunno." His eyes narrowed. "The exhibit, I hope."
That tiny frown made Blake pause, ignoring Alain's attempt to steer him toward the other room. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing." A second later his cheeks darkened. "That's never sounded convincing from anyone, has it? Sorry." He scowled at his glass and tossed back the last swallow. "It's just... Rainer. And the way he looks at you sometimes."
Blake's cheeks stung as if he'd been slapped. He stiffened and jerked his arm free. "That's—" A denial died unspoken. It wouldn't have sounded convincing either. "Are you jealous?" he asked instead, and cursed his defensive tone as soon as he heard it.
"Oh, please!" Alain drew the word out in two drawling syllables. "He may have money and a sexy accent, but throwing me over for your patron—who I introduced you to—would be so tacky you'd choke on it." He grew serious again. "It's not that I mind him making eyes at you. I just wish he wouldn't do it in front of Antja. Even if she doesn't say anything—" He shook his head. "Damn it. I'm tipsy and stupid. Don't pay any attention to me."
He held out a hand like a peace offering. After a heartbeat, Blake took it. Together, they stepped into the light and warmth of the other loft, into the smell of wine and candle wax and soft perfume. The party was quiet, intimate, not one of the events that sometimes crowded the gallery beneath them. Everyone here was familiar—still more Alain's friends than his, but Blake liked most of them well enough.
Tonight, though, tension ran in crackling lines through the room. Robert and Gemma—the gallery's premier artists, and normally inseparable—sat together, but Robert looked everywhere but her. Everywhere but her and Stephen York. Stephen circled the edges of the room, sleek and amused. He raised Blake's hackles, but was also one of gallery's backers. Jason and quiet little Rae sat apart, baby-bat goths and the youngest ones here. Antja stood by a window, watching the night as Blake had moments ago. Streetlight kissed her cheeks and hair. Studying her profile, he felt a familiar spark of recognition—the weight of unhappy secrets. Alain's words echoed in his head, and he looked aside.
And in the center of them all sat Rainer.
The gallery owner glanced up as though the thought had summoned him. His eyes were vivid even across the room, a pale shade that wasn't sky or periwinkle or even non-repro blue. A blue like shadows on snow. Compelling and disconcerting, especially when they lingered too long. After a few seconds he smiled apologetically and looked away.
The song on the stereo ended and the last haunting electronic notes fell into silence as conversations paused. Rainer shifted in his chair, ice clinking as he tilted his glass absently in one hand. Heads turned in the lengthening hush, watching, waiting. Blake didn't know how he did it—the charisma that drew attention with the slightest gesture, the energy that pulled people close.
Rainer sipped the last of his drink and set the glass aside. The guests turned to face him as the silence deepened, and the lights dimmed as if they too were quieting to listen. Antja resumed her usual place beside him, one smooth hip propped against his chair. Stephen flanked the other side, his posture cool and removed, his dark eyes derisive as ever. The others moved closer. Robert and Gemma reached across the space between their chairs to hold hands, their tension forgotten. Rae curled into Jason's lap, black hair hiding her face. Alain settled in a corner of the sofa and tugged Blake down next to him. Like children for story time.
Rainer glanced around the room, his eyes catching everyone in turn. That was part of the magnetism—the sincerity, the way he made everyone feel included. It had been a long time since Blake trusted easy charm and kindness, but even after Alain's misgivings he felt Rainer's smile like sunlight on his face.
It was what connected them, all these disparate people, besides art. They were all waiting for something, searching for something. And they all thought Rainer might give it to them. Blake knew better—knew too well how badly that could go. But here he was.
"I'm glad all of you could come," Rainer said. "I know some of you want to talk about the next exhibit, and we will, but there's something else I want to show you tonight." Cloth rustled; a boot scuffed against the rug; breath caught and held. "Some of you have already seen it. The rest are here because I think you should. Because I trust you."
Again that rush of pride. Ridiculous, dangerous, but Blake couldn't stop it. He wasn't the only one—even Alain leaned forward, color rising in his cheeks.
"The gallery is only half of what I'm doing here. Art pays the bills—" Someone snorted, and Rainer tilted his head in a wry nod. "Sometimes, anyway. But I'm looking for another sort of talent, too."
Blake flinched, unpleasant possibilities strobing through his head. He knew Rainer provided the drugs that floated like party favors through the private events, but that didn't make him a pusher, didn't make him a—
Alain's hand clamped on his, interrupting his increasingly hectic thoughts. "What do you mean?" he asked, voice rasping deeper than ever.
Whatever Blake expected, whatever he feared, it was nothing like what followed.
"Watch," Rainer said with a smile. He reached out and traced a shape in the air.
No, more than that. He opened the air, opened the world along an invisible seam, and filled it with golden fire.
Dreams of Shreds & Tatters is out in May