The hall stretches out in both directions, heavy wooden floor spanning out, covered in a luxurious red carpet that masks my footsteps. I follow the shouts. Gilded golden frames hang from the walls, displaying oil portraits that must have cost a fortune. Small emblazoned plaques identify the mix of men and women and grace the corridor.
Kya Vea, Aluna Devoux, Littleton Xek, Ophil Carde – none of the names or the faces ring a bell. I stand my ground before Littleton Xek’s portrait; he is a man with brooding eyes and a hunched posture, with ebony black hair and equally dark eyes that peer from within the canvas. They stalk me when I play with my footing to avoid the cumbersome weight of his black painted gaze. In his hands, there is a white rose, partially painted red. The orange rings appear and it feels as though my Specs are the only functioning bits of technology in this caricature of the past.
An memoir pops up. He is the second ever proprietor of The Painted Rose, ever since its establishment in New City – it has always been here since the building’s erection. The current proprietor is Rya Holmes; a white haired woman with a plump bosom – conveniently exposed in all of the available images.
It takes a minute to have them all identified; they were all proprietors of The Painted Rose during their lives. Rya Holmes’ portrait is not favouring these walls.
I move forward. I swear the eyes of the paintings tail me. I add haste to my steps. Around the sharp corner, the hallway is a mirror image of the one I just walked out of. The same portraits hang on the walls. Except this time, on the opposite side, at the end of the hall, there is a stairwell tucked between two corners and dark wood doors with golden knobs and old key slots line the walls.
I walk closer and voices ring clear with each step. A man and a woman. The woman’s voice is shrill and impatient. The man’s is low and insistent. There is a set of double doors on the wall with the portraits, in the centre. One of them is ajar, and the incense is so strong from within, my eyes water and burn.
“They were here. Asking about them. It doesn’t bode well for us,” the woman says frantically, her volume rising with each syllable.
“It was one detective,” the man says, dismissively. I lean in and peer through the gap. Thorne is sitting on a large overdone canopy bed with a buffet of pillows. A woman stands with her back toward to the door. She’s dressed ostentatiously in a red nightgown, her white hair clasped at the back of her head with a gaudy green gemmed hair pin. Her years are apparent in the slump of her shoulders and the weakness of her gait. She is Rya Holmes. She is the current head of The Painted Rose. My Specs tell me.
“Two of them. I found young ‘un sneaking about trying to rifle through Gennessa’s drawers after he told her he ‘needed the room to get ready privately’ – what? Is he the whore or her? That girl will be the downfall of everything.”
Thorne stands up. “Calm down. They won’t come back.”
“Calm down? Calm down? I should calm down? Why don’t you pull your act together and do your goddamn fucking job? Livell left a complaint with Lornae at the front desk. A complaint. That’s the last thing we need right now with the Precincts sniffing at our heels!”
Thorne’s face tightens. “That’s not fair. You don’t know what he –”
“I don’t care if he asks you to strip naked and shove your dick into a blender because he likes carnage. If he’s paying, you’re doing it. Do I make myself clear?” The woman’s stance widens and her shoulders straighten.
Thorne stares at her for a long second. His hands are clenched into fists. His expression is murderous. “Crystal.”
I don’t have time to react. I don’t have the reflexes to dash out of the way either. Thorne storms toward the door. Move, move, move!
He towers over me. If Rya Holmes turned around to watch him leave, I do not know. I cannot see her. I stare into the grey of his shirt and close my eyes. Maybe when I open them I will be outside staring at the concrete and never having entered here in the first place. He glowers down at me. His hand yanks at my arm. “You.” His voice is an octave above a growl. “Come with me.”
He pulls the door closed behind us and drags me down the hall. “Let me go,” I try to say, but it gets caught in my throat and whatever makes it out is barely above a whisper. I dig my heels into the carpet but his biceps bulge and with a tug from him, the effort is futile.
“Rereader, right?” he spits and some of it catches the side of my face. I flinch and try to cower back. He shoves me into a room. I stumble in, my shoulder colliding with something hard. He blanches – as though rueful – but the emotion crosses so fitfully, I blink and I doubt it was ever there. He points to what’s behind me. “There, that’s what you came for. And there’s the exit.” Then he pauses. "I'm sorry," his eyes follow to the forearm where he grabbed me. "Be quick."
The door shuts behind him. The lock clicks. Pain stings my shoulder. I refuse to cry. Holding a hand to my arm, I stagger to my feet, grasping the side of whatever it is I hit during my fall. It is wood – again – varnished and smooth in texture: a podium. A large book with yellowed pages rests open atop it. I enable camera mode on my Specs. I scan through the list of cursive names and chronological dates. It is a ledger. A ledger of every customer who has solicited the services of The Painted Rose.
The pages stink of a plethora of perfumes: floral, cheap chemicals, soap, freshly laundered clothes, sweat, salt…
I turn the page backward. Smooth, ashy. The book is old. Paper is expensive and rare. Too light and easily deteriorated for commercial use in our atmosphere. It takes me a few minutes to find it amongst the cluster of similar scribbles: Lio Tirete. He visited almost fifty times in the year succeeding Sinead’s death. I page further back. Sinead’s name features twice on almost every page. Something is wrong here.
“Why is this door closed?” The doorknob gives an angry rattle.
"Who’s in there?” the voice is decidedly female. Old. Rya? Whoever is on the other side bangs on the surface with their fist. “What are you doing in there? Unlock this door!”
I flip back to the main page. A way out. Exit. Thorne mentioned one. To my left there is a door, this time in metal. I pull my sleeve down, careful not to let my fingers touch the handle and push outside.
Run. Run! RUN!
The door swings shut behind me. I make a break for it. Grey and graffiti blurs around me. I run, run, run. The muscles in my thigh yank in protest. My heart bangs! against my rib cage. The air is engulfing and sour, melting like acid on the base of my tongue.
"Who was in in here?!" Rya Holmes screeches from the inside. It will only take a moment for her to open the door and see me running. I turn sharply into an alley. Without my rebreather, scents are alarmingly different. I can taste the death and paint that lingers in the air, the hint of smoke and ash. My vision blurs. I start to feel dizzy. I fumble with the glass panel in my pocket. The ringing tone cuts through the nebulous of sound whooshing! past me as I run. “O’Neil,” I say, between desperate pants. I cough, the air catching the back of my throat. My thighs almost falter.
I make another turn, praying I'm not circling, and stop, my back against the cold wall.
“Aylah!” A figure clots my vision. Dressed in black from head to toe. My glass tab crashes to the ground and erupts into a mosaic of shattered glass. I run and run and run and I think it is when I can run no more that I collapse and he catches me.
“Aylah,” he says. My vision is unfocused. I cannot see. My feet ache. The world wobbles on its axis. “Aylah, it’s me, Led, can you hear me?” He waves his hand over my eyes. My lids are heavy. Sleep. Sleep beckons. “Stay with me!”
Why is he so loud? Why is everything so bright? I turn into his chest, black and warm, until that is all I see. The world is empty and black and dark and there’s nothing left at all.
A sharp slap wakes me from my seconds of slumber. I blink. Led comes into focus, green eyes and blond hair. A backdrop of white behind him. The feel of slow movement below us. We're in Led's tram. "Are you okay?" he looks concerned. Though I suppose if the roles were reversed, I would be too despite how little I care for him.
"I need to speak to O'Neil." My head swings wildly side to side, making me more dizzy but the tram is empty except for us.
“He’s gone to see Nonsiu."
“Again? This is a record.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
I tell him about the book, but maybe not Thorne and Rya Holmes and he looks at me, and maybe, since we met, there isn’t a spark of irritation or hatred in his eyes. He is serious; his hair is mussy and standing up at odd angles, as though he has ran his hand through them one too many times. “What do you think this means?”
I hesitate. “I don’t know – a plot? If it’s going on for a long time…”
“Either the Foreman had some…eclectic proclivities Lio just happened share or…”
“Or there’s more to it then that,” I finish. He is worried. I am worried. He bites his lower lip. My fingernails dig into my palm. "How did O'Neil leave?"
"Investigator Harlow was with us. I didn't even realise until he was thrown out beside me." Led is almost sheepish. Harlow...the name is familiar. He was lead investigator on Sinead Vui's case. Led's eyebrows knit together: "Where's your rebreather?"
"I don't know," I say. I think it fell from my hands when Thorne grabbed me. My arm is still sore. I resist the urge to run my hands over what must be developing into a bruise.
"If you left it in The Painted Rose, they'll find you. You know that." Led's tone is not judgemental, just matter-of-fact with maybe a hint of worry.