“Hey! Hold that elevator, would you?”
Marie quickened her steps to catch up when she caught sight of Delilah Aswad’s steel tipped boot nudging the elevator doors apart. The rugged glamor puss from 5A shot her a brief smile before stepping aside to let her in.
Delilah was outlandish. Extraordinary. She was the impossible creature with murky brown eyes and crazy, curly hair stolen from an era when corduroy bell-bottoms and platform boots were considered futuristic, instead of vintage. A fierce and colorful dragon lived on her back. Her right arm and left leg were engulfed by twisting vines of inky ivy and blood-red orchids.
Seeing her for the first time, Marie hadn’t been able to help thinking: she’s got to be the victim of every extreme craze you can imagine. She wallows in her amplified strangeness. She revels in it.
The fashion-forward nymph’s companion was a pallid, drugged up sort in all-black with piercings everywhere. As they descended the guy was clinging to Delilah in one corner, mouth plastered to her neck. What could she possibly see in someone like this? Marie wondered, vaguely irritated. Marie must have telegraphed because when Delilah’s gaze clashed with hers, she grinned knowingly.
When vampire-boy backed away with a self-satisfied smirk, he’d left a bruise and the imprint of teeth. Even on Delilah’s dark skin, it was prominent. This simple, stupid act rankled but Marie didn’t say anything, couldn’t say anything. Besides, Delilah–she grabbed him by the back of the neck and returned the favor with a deliberate sort of fervor. Her devilish eyes were glued to Marie’s the entire time and Marie became paralyzed. Mesmerized.
The lift finally settled. Its doors swooshed open, causing the unsteady magic to dissipate. Marie blinked, torn between disappointment and giving way to the urge to get away as fast as possible. She hovered at the threshold. Filling the same small space as her nearly-neighbor was an unexpectedly jarring experience. Just breathing the same air as Delilah again, was making her jittery.
“It’s weird, you know.” Delilah stopped suddenly and turned. She was wearing gloves, the kind that covered the palms and ended at the roots of her fingers. “It’s been weeks since I moved in and even though you work in Jean’s apartment, we’ve really never talked before.”
Delilah had moved into the 5th floor studio-apartment of the east building. Her balcony faced the balcony of the central building’s fifth floor apartment. By a tiny stretch of the imagination, she and Maria were practically roommates. That was, save for the five feet of dead space and the five-story drop between their buildings. Marie worked as an assistant slash editor for Jean Fontaine, owner of the two buildings. It made sense that whoever he rented the apartment across from his to would have to be someone he knew and trusted.
“How are you settling in?” She ventured.
Vampire-boy stopped a short distance ahead. He shot Marie an impatient scowl. Could probably use the sunlight anyway, asshole. She thought uncharitably.
“Alright, I suppose.” She shot Marie speculative look. “You’ve been having trouble sleeping though, huh?”
Marie’s eyes widened her face precisely the picture of one thoroughly taken aback that her enigmatic neighbor had even been aware of her existence, much less her routine.
“Well, your balcony is directly across from mine,” Delilah continued. “I see your light on sometimes.”
“Ah, yeah… that.” Marie’s fingers fidgeted with the back of her neck, fending off a prickly sensation. “I’m writing a book. Trying. Mostly failing.”
“I imagine the odd work hours that Jean keeps only get in the way of that.” She reached into her pocket for sunglasses and slipped them on. Marie’s brain choked.
“I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you this but you should tell him if he’s being a bother, you know.”
“He isn’t, really. He’s brilliant. I didn’t expect that when he said he wanted to try being an author next. Best I could hope to work with, at any rate. Are you good friends then?”
“Of a sort. You should ask him,” Delilah tossed over her shoulder as she departed. “He’s a better storyteller than me, right?”
Marie idly chewed on her lower lips as she watched them go. The sun was pouring down already. The rising scent of baked earth mingled with a hint of jasmine, hibiscus and sweat. Friends of a sort, were they?
Would that be in the same way that the professor and Marie were colleagues… of a sort? God.
Marie hurried across the street and made a beeline for the cafe, irked by the fact she hadn’t heard this directly from Jean. What the hell was he thinking? Otherwise, that was just fine with her; she decided hastening her steps to cross the street before the light changed again. He wasn’t a difficult sort. Marie was neither inclined to go seeking forever in his arms, nor did she expect to be the only one who might find refuge there.
The man in question had the attention span of a gnat. She scowled when Jean set his half-empty coffee cup on the table. He stood; caramel gaze slung downward and regarded her with slyly.
“Maybe, I should’ve gone for iced coffee instead. I’m already hot.” His fingers twisted at his buttoned collar.
Marie sighed. Experience had taught her that resistance was pointless and took longer than simply giving in, but she had to at least try to keep him on task.
She glanced up briefly before turning her attention back to the sheaf of papers beside her laptop. “Keep your shirt on.”
She could feel him there, staring holes into her with a vague petulance that suggested he had no intention of getting back to the task at hand any time soon.
Through the bronze curtains, the sun tinted his skin a dark copper. On the verge of a sulk, he was biting down on his lower lip, momentarily derailing her concentration. He leaned forward, palms pressed down on the table. A delicate tremor–she face-palmed and pushed him away with in impatient scowl as he tried to kiss her.
“Jean! Back off and shut up for a min–” He sank back down unto his chair when she looked up sharply. “What the hell is this? Where’s the rest of it?”
Jean waved in the general direction of the wastebasket. “I chucked it. Something just wasn’t quite right.”
She tap-tapped at her laptop for a few seconds. “Did you delete the whole folder from here too?” She groaned when he nodded. “Didn’t I tell you not to touch my laptop, ever?” Her demeanor shifted so slightly only someone was sharp eyed as Jean would pick up on it. “What exactly were you looking for?”
Unfazed, he grinned. “I wasn’t snooping. I just wanted to toss that chapter. I thought some tactile inspiration might help me recreate that certain feeling. You’re the nitpicker no? You should appreciate my diligence.”
“So, while writing this chapter, you suddenly remembered something kinky that you wanted to do again?”
“You see? No one understands me like you do.” His devilish gaze gave away his intent to thwart every attempt to get back to work. “Let me use you to perfect my craft?”
Her query made him chuckle.
Marie let Jean paint her toenails. Perched on a lounger on his balcony, she raised a bemused brow at his choice of coloring. It was a spicy fuchsia that he knew was completely at odds with her personality. Somehow, Marie managed to resist the impulse to kick him in the throat.
She cleared her throat. “You’re mistaken if you think this is something that will–”
“What makes you think I have any expectations?” He glanced up with a brief grin. “Aren’t you the one humoring me?”
“Fine,” she grumbled vaguely appeased. “As long as you realize that.”
He dipped the brush into the bottle again before he began painting the next toe with a steady hand. Marie marveled at his seriousness. There was a strangely erotic suggestiveness in the way he moved, breathed, everything. This was a man who lived for only one thing.
“You know, someone like you might just be the perfect candidate for a serial killer.”
“You think?” He asked idly, his level of concentration still astounding her. “Can’t exactly say the thought hasn’t crossed my mind.”
Serial killers made for lousy contract killers, though. Too inflexible. If you could say anything about Jean, it was that he was too versatile. His eyes were golden. She watched the way he bit down thoughtfully on his lower lip. This was one of those times she had to swallow the urge to ask him what he’d seen in his life. What he’d done. All those things.
Jean Fontaine was a can of contradictions. Recently, he’d managed to slip into the role of a marginally popular author and the reclusive proprietor of one whitewashed apartment complex on a tumbledown street on the fringes of Florida. Unfortunately, the hyper-vigilance that served him well as a mercenary, didn’t seem to extend to any other aspect of his life.
Finished, Jean stepped back scrutinizing his handiwork as one would, a work of art. The concept of actually feeling girly had always been alien to Marie, until this moment. She smiled, embarrassed but inexplicably tickled. The man was a marvel. He surely was.
She heard the belly-rumble of a motorcycle approaching from the distance. She didn’t realize that she was leaving over to look down into the parking lot until he chuckled.
“There’s still a chance, you know.” He smiled but didn’t stop what he was doing. “You and Delilah. You’ve always been perfect for each other.”
Her heart stuttered at the words perfect for each other. She stared up at him, in consternation. This preternatural gift he had for paring her down to the core was one of the things had drawn her to him, yet it irked her immensely.
“What makes you think I’m about to open that can of worms?” She stared down, wriggled her toes. The polish was still wet and glistening.
“Well it’s obvious, isn’t it?” He straightened, capping the nail polish bottle.
He gave her a sage look. “It’s inevitable, really. In light of this, I expect you to do one of two things; console me or make me the happiest man who ever lived. A man is entitled to his fantasies, after all.”
He smiled slowly. “I mean, you’re both perfect for me.”
She was still thinking about Delilah and that smarmy guy that was clinging to her earlier. If over-sized bugs were really the cellist’s thing, who was Marie to challenge that?
Wouldn’t Marie’s slightly new neighbor be more scandalized by the intensity of her reaction to someone with whom she’s barely exchanged two words before today? She’d probably be really weirded out if the she knew Marie’s thoughts were full of her all the time. She might think it creepy. She might start thinking mousy Marie was a lunatic or something like that.
“Fantasies huh?” She gazed out into the somnolent street. Somewhere along the line, she’d lost track of hers. The ability to dream like that. To wish for things… like that.
She shrugged. “Impossible is impossible, Professor. Isn’t it?”
He frowned down at her. “I told you not to call me that.” The door slid open. He walked over to his desk and set the bottle down. Its brittle, vaguely noxious scent followed him there and back. He leaned against the frame.
“Delilah is beautiful.”
“She is that.” Jean nodded idly, only barely listening.
“So why are you sleeping with me? I mean,” she muttered lamely. “Wouldn’t someone beautiful be better… for this?”
“Wha–” His head reared up. He stared, mildly astonished. “Are you being serious?”
“Have you ever known me to be anything but?” Marie’s fingers curled into the base of the neat knot she’d made of her hair. They longed to rip those hairpins out, messy every curly strand. hell. She was silently but surely coming unglued.
“This is more serious than I thought, isn’t it?” Now Jean was the one becoming quietly serious, which made her wary.
“Don’t give me that look.” She eyed him balefully.
Jean relented after some consideration. His hand captured hers, fingers tangling with hers. “Why don’t I treat you to some of the limited-edition Drambuie that I got last week?”
While running out for coffee the next day, Marie saw vampire-boy crossing the street toward the apartments. His eyes had a furtive, furious edge. She didn’t even blink when he scowled at her and kept going. On the way back, she heard mounting voices.
Delilah must have said something else to piss the jerk off because he suddenly took a swing at her. At first, Delilah just stood there as if stunned by the blow. Marie didn’t even think. She raced across the street toward them. She stopped in her tracks when Delilah hauled back and clocked him. Marie’s heart sank. It was too late to stop her now.
Vampire-boy must have not been expected it. He staggered back a few paces. Before he even got a chance to regain his equilibrium, Delilah spun and sent his flying with kick powerful enough to send him crashing into the wall. He crumpled. Marie was running toward them again even as Delilah crouched over the hapless guy. She belted him again and again.
She wasn’t listening. Uncertainty warred with dread. What could Marie Hernandez possibly do except stand there and watch and tremble?
Delilah delivered a deliberate and systematic beat-down. She struck him again and again with robotic efficiency. The guy didn’t even stand a chance a fighting back. Marie heard a crack of bone. She had do something, right then and somehow without raising suspicion.
She surged forward to grab hold of Delilah’s arm. Delilah’s elbow caught her on the recoil, send her wobbling. Marie’s back slammed into the wall. Her jaw snapped downward. She tasted blood. Delilah wheeled after her. Marie flinched when she came close. She was shaking. It was weird, but she couldn’t help it. Couldn’t stop. Her vision blurred, eyes swimming with wet and salt. She swallowed hard, barely recognized the shaky voice that pleaded with Delilah.
“Are you really going to kill him right here in broad daylight. What the hell is wrong with you?”
“You know, people like you really piss me off!” Delilah snarled.
Her fist rammed into the wall, bare inched away from Marie’s face. That mean glint in her eyes was truly chilling. Marie’s knees went watery as she watched Delilah stalk away. She had to brace herself against the sunbaked concrete to keep from sliding to the ground. That was close. Vampire-boy was in bad shape. She bent to give the pissant a tissue for his bloody nose, eyes, mouth.
“Piss off!” He kicked out at her.
Marie straightened. “Suit yourself.”
She walked away and left him there to lick his wounds. She didn’t bother looking back. Spilled coffee forgotten, she crossed the quadrangle, making a beeline for her own apartment. She managed to keep everything that was frothing up inside under the lid until she got to her door. She quickly closed it behind her. She slipped to the floor. She was shaking, couldn’t stop. She heard her phone vibrating like a mad hornet. She ignored it. Jean could damned well wait, she decided.
Her whole body was buzzing, every nerve ending throbbing. Her response wasn’t simply out of character; it was excessive and highly inappropriate. The trickle of near-hysterical laughter that spilled from mouth was sharp and cracked across the room like a whip.
Marginally acceptable behavior, Marie Hernandez was supposed to be thoroughly shaken and scared. Still, one couldn’t just throw caution to the wind because the sight of blood randomly stirred her up, now could she?
“Ugh…” The water was on full blast.
Marie was trembling as the stream drenched her back. The uninvited rush of tears was hot and stung her eyes. Down to her toes, she was mortified. Plus, a cold shower was such a cliché.
Jean Claude eyed Delilah critically. “Aren’t you a little old for this? Getting all busted up in a fight, then running home to Daddy. What do you want me to do, stick a pretty band-aid on it?”
“Shut up. I’m not a kid and you’re not my dad.”
“How much of this blood is even yours?”
Her mouth twisted. “Not much.” She turned to him with a small, helpless gesture.
He helped with peeling her clothes off and waited for her to step into the shower before turning it on full-force. “There, cool your head down for a minute.”
“She was there.” Delilah finally shuddered, swallowing jerkily. “Marie… she saw me like that. She saw everything.” Her eyes were unsteady and as round as saucers when she turned her gaze sideways. “What should I do?”
“Why do you give a damn if she saw you?”
“Is it weird?” Her astonished gaze arced upward. “I knew it was weird!”
Jean sighed heavily. “Regardless, it won’t do you any good to worry about that now. Will it?”
When she slid down onto her knees in the tub, rapid breath blossoming into fill tilt sobbing. Jean stepped out into the hallway and closed to door behind him. He leaned against the wall. He sank down into a sitting position. Well, damn. It wasn’t as if he couldn’t relate.
“Listen to you–bawling your eyes out like a child,” he muttered. “God… some things just never change. This kind of thing is exactly why I couldn’t be your handler anymore, you know.”
Showered and enveloped in of Jean’s shirts, Delilah took up residence at his desk slash dining table. He made her tea, laced with spice and rum. She sipped delicately, steam scattering as the blew on the top of her cup. She poured all her energy into these simple motions. Her gaze was far off and unfocused. He took that as a good sign.
Delilah was already standing on the edge of her balcony’s banister, poised to leap across to the other building when Marie emerged from her bedroom. The sun was low in the sky, everything awash in amber.
Her lithe form crowded the sky. Marie could only stare, captivated by her careless, animal grace. There was a cheeky grin and then she just took off into the air. She landed easily on the other side, clearing the edge by mere inches.
“What the hell are you doing?” Marie’s heart stuttered. “Maybe you’ve got a death wish?”
“What this? It’s nothing,” but she was breathless, and her hands were shaking just little. “Well, it’s not something I usually just do for fun. To tell you the truth, heights aren’t exactly my favorite thing in the world.”
“To what do I owe this hair-raising display of athletic prowess, then?”
“I owe you an apology, don’t I?” Delilah’s head dipped slightly when she smiled.
There were loads of uncertainty there, Marie mused. It made her nerve endings ache just a little and she was vaguely relieved when Delilah sniffed the air curiously. “What are you making?”
“Chicken curry. Want to join me for lunch?” She stopped just inside, waiting for Delilah to follow her into the kitchen.
“You eat at odd hours.”
Marie grinned. “I keep odd hours.”
Delilah eyed the dining table. Just like Jean’s, it was strewn with notebooks and papers. She hovered, randomly satisfying her curiosity.
She picked up a clip-bound stack and flipped the top page. “This is what you’re working on now?”
“One of the things I’m working on.” Marie went on to the kitchen.
There was no harm in letting her just sift through things. Besides, this encounter was doing a fierce little number on her heart. They danced around each other verbally, while Marie got the rice and sauce for the curry started. Just when she’d managed to steady her nervous fingers enough to slice an onion, Delilah tilted her world with a few casual words.
“Doesn’t fit, you know. You don’t really strike me as the sort who’d become entangled with the likes of Jean. Or me, for that matter.” She finished under-breath.
Marie poked her head out of the kitchen. “What do you mean?”
Delilah shook her head. “Nothing.”
Marie frowned. “Well, it’s got to be someth–”
The saucepan on the stove suddenly started hissing. She whirled back, gathering up a handful of diced onions and peppers. She tossed them in and was visibly startled to come face to face with Delilah when she turned back around.
Suddenly, they were somehow standing together before the stove, working side by side. It exceeded anything Marie had ever imagined. Being together like this, making a meal together had a dizzying effect. Didn’t Delilah think it was too soon? Or did she maybe, think nothing of it at all? Thinking that, Marie found it difficult to breathe. It felt like she was slowly dying there.
Delilah’s proximity and her scent brought to mind, visions of a wild garden path and a riot of flowers. Marie was wearing one of those tops that gathered in a bow at the back of the neck, leaving most of her back bare. Delilah’s palm on the scarified pattern on her shoulder was unexpected.
“Oh wow,” The soft murmur, the curious motion of her fingers probing the ridges of the scarified pattern sent tingles down Maria’s spine. “You’re Nyakaya. I’m Tiamat.”
“What does that even mean?”
“Not telling,” Delilah looked Marie squarely in the eyes. “I’m glad I make you at least a little nervous, though. I’m not exactly a patient sort.”
“Wow,” Marie breathed. “Do you always do that?”
“What?” Delilah dipped a wooden spoon into the bubbling saucepan. She took her time blowing on it before upending the contents into her palm.
Marie watched her taste it. “Advance when you realize your opponent is about to retreat.”
After a thoughtful moment, Delilah plucked two bottles from a spice rack and sprinkled in a little of both.
“So,” she stirred the pot. “We’re adversaries then?” She asked the question softly.
When she set the spoon down, she seemed vaguely worried. “I’m sorry, I never even stopped to think this might be a problem for you. Does my relationship with Jean bother you?”
“That’s not really what I was talking about.”
“Say, if we touch and taste the same person,” Delilah mused. “I’d like to think something like that means that we’ve already touched each other. Kissed each other, countless times.”
Marie gave her a dubious frown. “You’re kidding, right?”
“That deep connection, it’s not meaningless. Why turn a blind eye to something so beautiful and rare?”
This was bad. Beyond all pretenses, Marie was being rapidly overwhelmed. “Listen, Jean is a smooth talker.” She stuttered. “You should maybe not let him put words into your mouth like this.”
“No? He said your hands are nice,” Delilah smiled. “He was right.”
Marie dragged her hand away–discomfited. “They’re far from nice hands. Look at those messy fingers. I have ink stains over my old ink stains and my nails are bitten down to the nub.”
“So, what?” Delilah stepped back to give Marie room when she started nervously rummaging through a top cupboard for plates. “You’re human,” She persisted, keeping her distance though. “You take your work seriously and you have a nervous disposition. I don’t have a problem with any of those things. Besides, I’d take ink stains over blood stains any day.”
God. What a mess. Delilah was starting to seem hurt now, in a way that words could not express. Trapped in the awkward silence that followed the sound of Delilah’s phone saved them. She answered and listened for a few moments before nodding subconsciously, which made Marie grin idiotically.
“Yeah, I’ll be there.” She said. She turned back to her would-be prey. “Sorry. Rain-check? My work is a real pain sometimes.”
“What kind of job?”
Delilah stuck her phone back into her pocket. “The kind that lets me travel and play my music wherever I want.”
“That’s awfully vague.”
“I know.” She made a beeline for the bedroom.
“Oh no, you don’t.” Marie hurried after Delilah, propelled her toward the door instead.
“But I’m not wearing shoes.”
Marie pointed at a pair of sandals by the doorway. “These will do, won’t they?”
Delilah slipped them on. At the threshold, she stopped. “You know, I’m usually better at… whatever this is. Can I come see you again?”
Marie’s head bobbed. “Of course, but use the door next time, why don’t you?”
Alone again, she stopped suddenly, backtracked to the table. A yellow post-it covered with Delilah’s careless scrawl had been stuck atop her manuscript.
Marie. You should write more honestly.
Delilah’s balcony doors were never closed, Marie had noticed. During the night, she noticed that there was a light on inside. She stepped onto the balcony, meaning to call out softly.
She opened her mouth to speak but not sound came out. Delilah was already waiting. She was wearing jeans and a blazing white bra–no shirt? Awash in candle light, her skin glistened with sweat. She was looking at the spot where Marie stood, but her vision had flown to some faraway place. She sank down onto a stool that had been set before her bed.
The dragon’s tail coiled around to her waist. Its diamond tipped tail was centered at her pierced navel. The end pointed downward to the open waistband of her jeans.
“Oh,” Marie murmured. “Nyakaya and Tiamat. She’s the dragon. I’m the crocodile.”
Delilah took a brief bow, in Marie’s direction before straddling her cello. She paused for a few seconds, bow arrested in mid-air. Her gazed swooped low. The ice in her nearly empty glass glittered in the flickering light.
She took one deep breath, drew her bow and made the most delicately damaging sound that you can imagine. It tugged at Marie’s blood. It filled her apartment, every inch of her being. She knew this song. She’d never thought there was anything special about it before but she’d never heard anyone play it quite like this. Delilah stopped as suddenly as she’d started.
The unexpected pause was jarring, like an athlete in a hundred-meter dash coming to a sudden halt midway-way from the finish line. Marie was holding her breath waiting for the moment that glorious song would begin again. The expectation was agonizing. She was left teetering on a tightrope between disappointment and elation
Delilah had this strange light in her eyes. She was staring across the distance that separated them. She was looking right at Marie but she didn’t see her. Her intensity had this magnifying effect. Marie could see the beads of sweat that trickled down her forehead. The muscles in her shoulder rippled as she drew her elbow back the way an archer pulls an arrow right before the release.
A long, musical wail exploded into the air and Marie felt it. She could feel it in her bones and there was this sharp sensation in her heart. This was Delilah’s song faster and more furtive than Bach’s solo. Long, mournful notes pierced at her heart. The short throaty notes reminded her to breath, breath no matter how painful it had become. Delilah was drowning in it and dragging Marie with her into that warm and mysterious place.
How much time went by? Marie forgot to count or care about the minutes that slipped by. Delilah could probably play all night long and no one would ever complain. She had that whole damned complex under her spell. The sound was full. It vibrated, penetrating everything in its path, filling the sky. Filling the whole wide world.
When she finally subsided, she segued into a tender tune. Right there, Marie sat with her legs knees drawn up to her chin. Utterly seduced, she fell asleep.
Something feathery brushed at Marie’s bruised cheek. When she opened her eyes, Delilah was there, kneeling before her.
“You smell like flowers.” she murmured.
“We need to talk, you and I.” Delilah said.
“Yes, we do,” Marie got to her feet unsteadily. “First, I need to clear my head. Coffee?”
Delilah nodded. “With lots of sugar and cream.”