Ariel drove directly to ‘the office’. On this occasion ‘the office’ happened to be a closed set in the middle of Timor Park, one of the few green zones remaining within walking distance of Perth’s central business district. The team from Cosmeta magazine had set up a large pavilion in case of rain – there’d already been a pattering of it as she pulled out of Tumblehedge’s driveway but it didn’t really start in earnest until midday – and to protect from the worst of the wind (affectionately known as ‘the Doc’, at least in summer) that swept up the valley and pummelled the hillside park even on good days. Today, Ariel came to realise as the Doc boomed the pavilion like a drum and the two ideologically-opposed photographers argued over everything from lighting to motivation to espresso-drinking style, was not going to be a good one. Indeed, as the afternoon wound on and the wind and rain arced up into a genuine old-time B&S ball of a storm, the whole team fled into the nearby visitors’ centre that they’d also had the foresight to rent for the occasion, and continued the shoot against computer-assisted backdrops while crew members risked life and limb to pack up ‘the office’ before it carried them all to Kalgoorlie. She managed to pep-talk the two photographers into settling most of their disagreements amicably and compromising on the rest, or at least into uniting in their disgust at the idiotic concept director who had decided they could somehow combine their visions on this editorial and had thus insisted on forcing them all together when clearly their strengths lay in working alone … but she didn’t quite manage to make them shake hands on the espresso thing.
Ash slept until nine, then went immediately to the gym. It was actually a converted stable, a ludicrous conceit even back when the place had been built – not a single horse had ever crossed the threshold of Tambleigh Heath, let alone Tumblehedge, and the spacious series of little connected-up buildings along the rear boundary of the property had been clean and empty since the days of Ash’s grandfather, whose own father had briefly attempted to use the stables as a combined family museum and whiskey distillery, but had ultimately given up on what turned out to be an endeavour that contained the seeds of its own demise. Ash had repurposed them into a set of training rooms and almost every resident of Tumblehedge used them in their own ways. Even Agnes occasionally enjoyed a sparring session in the fencing gear (with her formidable niece), and an even more occasional sauna (strictly by herself). Only Jarvis avoided the place, claiming it was unnatural. Ash performed her own series of esoteric and self-devised exercises, geared more towards stretching muscle and tendon and burning off the last of the alcohol in her system rather than building up any one particular skill or strength. She spent forty-five minutes on the computer-guided reflex-honing program – what Ariel gleefully insisted on calling “that corny ol’ shoot-em-up game” – and another thirty on the sparring bars, before winding down on a sequence of other equipment, a lot of which she and Roon had built together. Then she returned to the house, had breakfast, went for a run, sat on the verandah and smoked a cigar and watched the rain, had a brief but satisfying snark-off with Jarvis, then retired to her room with the tray of lunch he’d prepared for her, to edit and send off her official mission report for the unit. She invariably wrote the whole report right after returning home and before going out to drink, then took it out the next day and scrubbed it of all subtext, cynicism, veiled and not-so-veiled socio-political commentary and puns that had seemed darkly hilarious at the time. Sometimes this left her with very little text to work with, but her supervisors weren’t big readers anyway. Then she spent some time corresponding with various friends and colleagues who would be waiting for word, as well as the families of her teammates. They, of course, would already be aware of the situation – this time, blessedly, they’d all come home and she hadn’t needed to send any of those messages – but she liked to send a personal greeting and thank-you. There were different kinds of sacrifice, and the people who stayed behind often made the hardest ones of all.
Gabriel read the dossier on the Vandemar family one more time, just – he admitted to himself – to put off shaving. He hated shaving. Of course, there wasn’t a driving need to shave everywhere, since clothes would cover most of it … and the way he looked, once shaved, tended to divert attention from any incidentally over-hairy bits that had been left unmolested. But in order to enjoy that small benefit, he had to shave at least his face and his neck, and as accustomed as he was to doing so, he didn’t like it. There was a certain point at which, he felt, he should stop making concessions to the gawping, prodding, querulous-question-asking public and just revel, unashamed and glorious, in what he was. It was his hands, however, that he most hated to shave. They itched like fury for days afterwards … but nothing would attract attention in Cancerland faster than gloves. Even if he tried to pass them off as sun protection, they’d stick in people’s memories. More than long-sleeved shirts, far more than long trousers, more than an excessively-hairy frame and a lumpy, extraordinarily-ugly face, gloves were weird. And Gabriel had come to be very, very wary of how much weird he projected to the world. And so he read the dossier, came to the same conclusion he’d come to the past three times he’d read it – that of cautious optimism tempered by dozens of crushing disappointments, but overall a certainty of about ninety-five percent, making it worth the trip by a solid twenty-percent margin – and then he shaved his face and neck and hands and as far up his wrists as he could bear to, and cropped the thick, lush fur of his forearms down to a heavy fuzz for good measure before dressing, packing up files and minimal belongings, and repairing to the church roof. He followed the sun west, first chasing the sunset and then fleeing the dawn, from New York to California. He rested through the day in a little chapel on the edge of the ocean, then – after waiting for the fabled green flash as the sun dipped below the Pacific horizon and, approximately the eight hundred and three thousandth time in a row, failing to see it – launched himself south-westwards once more.
Sloane took a brisk walk, visiting the grocery store, pet shop and then the post office to retrieve the mail from his post box. He returned home, read his mail, paid his bills, ate a brunch of rice cakes and cheese, finished it off with a banana and a glass of milk, and then sat in comfortable silence for two hours and forty-seven minutes. Then he rose, stretched, and retrieved the little straw-padded box he’d brought from the pet store. He moved to his well-lit and plastic-covered card table, sat, opened the box carefully, and lifted the trembling hamster out. Another one hour and fifty-three minutes later, he disposed of the remains in the kitchen sink’s compost grinder, showered, and cooked some pasta for dinner. Sloane had issues. Sloane’s issues had issues.
Agnes was out of the country, due to return home that very afternoon. She was in Singapore, and consequently terrorising a check-in clerk who was not being paid anywhere near enough to be expected to tell Agñasta Mulqueen where her bags were, why the flight out of Paris had been delayed, why the two first-class seats she had booked for herself had been allocated with an aisle in between them instead of side by side, and who would answer for the inconvenience she had gone to considerable expense to avoid. Agnes was not a large woman – in fact, she was just on the upper edge of petite, escaping both ‘skinny and wizened’ and ‘tiny and furious’ by a margin as comfortable as her own in-built padding. She did, however, loathe sharing her personal space and even the capacious first class seats were too close for comfort and almost inevitably resulted in her being forced to talk to somebody she did not want to talk to. And that never turned out well for anyone concerned, for as smart as she was she had yet to master – or even accept the value of mastering – the art of small talk or polite, non-devastating conversational dissuasion. She usually travelled by one of the Vandemar Trust or Vandemar Holdings private jets, or a plane belonging to one or another of the vast multinational corporations the Vandemar family owned or controlled, or she would simply ‘borrow’ Ariel’s own jet and its pilot, Launchpad. His name wasn’t Launchpad, but Agnes had a sense of humour that was strictly not of this century. On this occasion there had been no recourse but to fall back on ‘public transportation’, and having paid the price for doing so Agñasta Mulqueen was determined that any further paying would be done entirely by others.
Jarvis was awake before Ariel – only about an hour after Ariel and Ash went to sleep, as a matter of fact – and was finished with the majority of his ‘housework’ well before lunchtime. He left his usual impeccably-placed and completely-unnecessary notices, took one of the more humble cars into town, and did some grocery shopping. By the time he returned, it was raining heavily and Ash was sitting on the verandah, puffing moodily on one of the enormous military-chic cigars that he knew she favoured for the dual reasons of her late father smoking the same variety, and the way they made her look and feel like a tough special-forces-slash-generalissimo type. A classic coping mechanism that he had long since noted she used with greater frequency after returning from a mission, even if she tended to drink the worst of the poison out of her system within the first couple of nights of her return. Well-aware of her other coping mechanisms, he fixed her a large lunch and left it on a tray near the stairs leading up to her room, where she wouldn’t fail to spot it as she strode away after soundly whipping him in a battle of verbal wits. Then he joined her on the verandah, folded his hands and waited for her opening salvo.
And Roon worked, and worked, and worked.