Talulla Rising Page 25

‘Stin iya mas,’ New York said, and downed his shot in one.

‘Do you work for WOCOP or not?’ Cloquet said.

New York sighed, closed his eyes, opened them. Which meant: I’m trying to be civilised about this, but this person is fucking it up. Or it was a pretence of that, part of a satirically polite persona he adopted for this kind of thing for his or the Russian’s amusement, although the Russian looked as if his amusement circuits had been burned out – along with his capacity to sleep – decades ago. ‘How about this,’ New York said. ‘A radical suggestion: I tell you our story, you tell us yours.’ He looked from Cloquet to me, smiling, always smiling. To Cloquet the smile said: you need to dial it down, motherfucker, because I’m losing patience. To me it said: this schmuck’s going to get you killed – and yes, I’m attracted to you, yes I want you, in that way, but only if it’s mutual. (And since life loves impropriety, wulf’s libido twitched in its sleep, sent the first signal that waking up was on the cards. Of course now. Of course when it was least wanted. Of course when death might already be in the room. I looked away.) ‘I promise you,’ New York said, ‘you’re in zero danger from us. I’d give you the weapons back right now to prove it, but the problem is – ’ looking at Cloquet – ‘there’s a good chance you’d shoot us out of Gallic indignation.’

‘You don’t need the knives,’ the Russian said. Soft voice the colour of his starved eyes. ‘But keep them if it makes you feel better.’

‘Knives?’ New York said, but the Russian just shook his head. We weren’t going to be any trouble with our knives.

‘Oh, right, the kitchen. And the boiling water. I get it. You won’t need any of that. But I understand. No offence taken.’

Cloquet, standing by the window, had his jacket’s hem in his hands, a tic of his I hadn’t seen for a while. I sat down on the end of the couch. Zoë’s head smelled the way babies’ heads smell, which was one of those things that without warning refreshed or reloaded the fact that she was mine. One of mine. I felt, suddenly, the gulf of time that had passed since the vampires had taken Lorcan. If these two really were ex-WOCOP maybe they’d know something. If they had information and weren’t interested in killing us I’d give them money for it. A lot of money. I’d fuck them, if that would help. A surprisingly easy decision to make, but pointless, since I couldn’t let myself believe they weren’t going to kill us, whether either of them wanted to fuck me or not.

‘Will you tell us who you are?’ I said.

New York refilled his glass and the Russian’s, then held the bottle out for Cloquet, who let go of his jacket hem but shook his head, no.

‘I’m Walker. He’s Mikhail Konstantinov. We used to work for WOCOP. Now we don’t. Now we’re freelance.’

‘What do you want us for?’ Cloquet growled.

‘Jeez Louise,’ Walker said. ‘It’s lucky we are friendly because otherwise I’d’ve shot you in the nuts by now. Is he always this uptight?’

This playful shtick of his would have started as a defence against something, his conscience maybe, memories, whatever had happened to him. Now it was part of him, like a hat he never took off. To the people who knew him it would be alarming if he ever did take it off. I groped for a sense of what the relationship between him and Konstantinov was, but there was too much else going on. The Russian was simultaneously intense and remote, like a star seen through a telescope.

‘To answer your question,’ Walker said to Cloquet, ‘we don’t want you for anything. We were as surprised to see you at Merryn’s as you were to see us.’ Then when Cloquet visibly didn’t soften: ‘Okay, listen. I get it. You’re suspicious. I’ll go first.’

I tried to keep hold of the belief that the friendliness was a sadistic ruse, designed to heighten our horror (and so their pleasure) when the moment came for us to realise we’d fallen for it. But the longer Walker talked, the harder it was not to be disarmed. WOCOP, he told us, had split. Ellis’s plot to kill Grainer and key upper-echelon players had provoked a backlash. A programme of ‘identifying and eliminating’ members of the rebel faction had been launched, initially based on intelligence, soon spiralling out into Stalinesque paranoia. Agents who’d had nothing to do with Ellis were ‘exposed’, court-martialled, executed. ‘You know the way it goes,’ he said. ‘People getting arrested for wearing suspicious glasses, for having suspicious haircuts. The organisation’s killed more than two hundred of its own in the last four months.’

‘So you were with the rebels?’ I asked. I’d remembered – astonished at my own slowness – that the renegades’ agenda was to avoid redundancy by letting werewolf numbers go up. World Organisation for the Creation of Occult Phenomena. In which case, obviously...

‘No,’ Walker said. ‘I mean I got it – Ellis’s logic was sound: the organisation was making itself obsolete – but I was ready to get out anyway. I’d had enough. Plus I couldn’t stand Ellis. He was too white and too wacko. I always imagined him having alien genitals. Like maybe a ball with stalks coming out of it. Or something like an artichoke. Anyway he gave me the royal heebie-jeebies.’

I was getting an idea of Walker. I couldn’t help it. Some early loss or violence had made the particular form of how he made a living irrelevant to him. He’d been shoved by shock too young into the truth that nothing meant anything. The smile, the delight, the slacker clothes, it all derived from that. That was what the shtick defended against. He could sense me reading this from him. It excited him, but it unnerved him too, took him back to whatever it was that had broken his contract with life in the first place, the thing around which this sad bright pearl of his identity had been wrought. Love. Or death. Or both. Meanwhile a part of me stood off, arms folded, lips pursed, shaking her head at the rest of me, the shambles. Really? This? Now?

‘So if you weren’t with the rebels,’ I asked, ‘why’s the organisation after you?’

Pause. A glance exchanged between him and Konstantinov.

‘The guy who took over from Grainer is John Murdoch,’ Walker said. ‘He runs ground operations now. He’s not a fan of mine.’

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