CHAPTER FOUR

THE LADY STRANGE MADE ANSWER MEET

 


"I should be smoking. That's what people do in the movies after they just had a life-threatening experience. They light up a cigarette with trembling fingers. But I don't smoke. Wait, I can drink. Of course, I don't drink all that much. I think I had more beer last week in that shithole dive than I did in my whole life before. Still, it tasted nice. Do you have any beer?"

"We have a few bottles of wine."

"No. I need beer."

"Maybe you should lie down..."

"No, you know what I need? That goddamn snake-bitch in a cage. Where is she?"

I had no real answer because I didn't know. Father had told me to take Layla to his chambers. I had left him with Jamie and Alexandra. As I lead the trembling Layla away, Alexandra's sobs faded away but echoed in my memory. They were stuck there with the image of her as a murderous psychotic.

I settled on the best answer I could. "Father and Jamie will take care of her. Could you tell me what happened?"

"You want to know what happened? I was just sitting there when this fucking circus freak comes out of nowhere and tries to bite me. And then this other circus freak charges in and breaks the fight up. That's what fucking happened."

I squeezed my lips together. Under other circumstances I would have objected to my loved ones being described as 'circus freaks.' But circumstances had taken an abrupt turn.

"And you say she's your girlfriend?"

"It's..."

"If you say the word 'complicated' one more time, I'll break your neck!"

"Layla, I want to explain everything, but first you need to calm..."

Father entered -- not exactly the person I needed to calm Layla down. She backed off a step. Father looked briefly at her, then turned to me. "Alexandra wants to leave," he said. "Jamie won't let her."

"I better go and see her."

"And what if you can't convince her to stay?"

"Well, there's nothing we can do if she..."

"Whoa, whoa," Layla interrupted. "What do you mean, 'there's nothing you can do?' You surely can't be thinking of letting her go?"

Father turned to her. "She is not a member of our community."

"Really? She's not in your zoo?"

"No," Father said in an even voice. "I represent the entirety of our zoo."

Father and Layla stared at each other for a few moments, then she said, "I'm having a freak-out right now, but I am aware that you rescued me. Thanks."

Father nodded.

"But I still don't understand. Why can't you keep her here?"

"If we try to keep her here, then powerful forces will come to remove her. We won't be able to stop them. No one could." He turned to me and said, "You're the only one she will listen to. Tell her that now is not the time to leave. I will stay here with Layla." He looked at Layla. "Unless I make you uncomfortable..."

"Everything has made me uncomfortable tonight," she responded. "I might as well hang out with you."

"Very well."

Father told me to go to the North Entrance, Level Three. I ran a blue streak there. I found Jamie standing between Alexandra and the exit. Jamie was pointing her crossbow at the floor, but its drawstring was still pulled back with an arrow.

"You will stand aside!" Alexandra demanded. Her tone was imperious; I had heard her speak with such authority before. She had used her excellent voice to intimidate the Nobles. Now she was trying to intimidate Jamie.

No good. "You think you can try to kill somebody on my territory and get away with it?" Jamie said. "Uh-uh."

"And you think that my father will stand by and let you detain me?"

"Lady, you ain't at 817 Fifth Avenue. I control this entrance, and I'm telling you..."

I said, "Everyone, be calm." Boy, hadn't that request been made a lot in the last hour?

"You can't leave," I told Alexandra. "Not until..."

"I will leave when I want," she said. "I am Alexandra Bradbury."

I placed my hands on her shoulders and turned her until we were facing each other. "We have to know why you did that. I need to know. And I want to understand. But you can't just...you can't do what you just did and then walk..."

Alexandra slapped my hands off her shoulders. Her red eyes blazed with anger. "You forget who you are," she declared. "You forget who I am."

She pulled out black scarves from a pocket in her cloak. As she spoke, she wrapped the scarves around her face. "My father could send the finest assassins into this dungeon and destroy your precious community. You presume to tell me what I can or can't do when I hold your world in the palm of my hand? The High Tower has leveled entire kingdoms. A gang of misfits cowering in the darkness is no threat to them."

She tightened the scarves into a mask. Then she pulled out her dark glasses. "If you value your life here, do not make demands of me." She covered her eyes with the dark glasses. "And do not assume that I am bound by our relationship."

She pulled the hood over her head. "Now tell her to stand aside."

I could see my face in her glasses. I looked like I just had dirt shoved into my mouth. I eventually said this --

"I never forgot who you are. Before I could do that, I would have to know who the fuck you are." I turned to Jamie. "Let her go."

Jamie didn't try to argue. She had just seen something ugly created between Alexandra and me. Now was not the time to keep the two of us in the same place together.

She pulled a lever. The secret entrance opened. Alexandra left. Jamie closed the door.

"Jacob, I'm sorry," she said, but I was already leaving. I stomped through the tunnels. Anybody who was in my path stepped quickly aside. No one dared to speak with me.

When I reached my chambers I fell on my bed and cried. At one point Father entered and tried to comfort me.

"Get out!" I bellowed. He did.

I cried until I exhausted myself. I fell asleep on a wet pillow.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

I had no dreams. As always when you go to bed after an upsetting event, sleep felt brief. When I opened my eyes I immediately remembered the physical and emotional violence of the night before. I looked up at the stone ceiling as if it was a screen displaying a movie of Alexandra's face.

"I'm not sure which one of us had a worse night."

I turned my head and saw Layla sitting next to my bed. "What are you doing here?" I asked.

"I was a little too wired from last night to go home. So Vincent allowed me to use his chambers." She paused, then said, "He's a nice guy."

"Yeah. I know." I looked at a wind-up clock. The time was a few minutes past eight in the morning.

I said, "Don't you have a job that you need...oh, yeah."

"Right. I am unemployed. I sacrificed a paycheck on the altar of my righteous indignation. I still have enough money for room and board, though. For a little while, anyway. Speaking of which, why don't you take me back to my apartment?"

"Huh?"

"Come with me to my apartment. I'll fix you breakfast."

"That won't be necess..."

"We need to talk, Jacob."

"We can talk here."

"I don't feel..." She looked around my chambers. "...fully comfortable here yet."

I rubbed my eyes. "I'm not up for it, Layla."

"Come on. I'll make you bacon and eggs. Besides, without your help I'll get lost in these goddamn tunnels."

I looked at her. A tiny smile was on Layla's face. I was grateful enough for that smile to say, "Okay."

We encountered Father as I lead her out of the Tunnels. "I'm taking Layla back Above."

"I was going to suggest you do just that," Father said, then turned to Layla. "It was a pleasure meeting you. I wish it could have been under better circumstances."

Layla said, "You have a real sexy voice, you know that?"

"I need it," Father said with a straight face. "Until we meet again, Layla."

Layla and I continued on our way. We didn't say anything to each other, except to give directions. I was brooding too much for talk.

What had happened between Alexandra and me? I had been anxious before our meeting, but I had also felt that despite everything -- Crown, Masilela -- we would still be capable of love. Instead, not only had she exhibited a sudden, inexplicable rage, but also she had rejected me in the coldest way imaginable. I knew her harsh words to me had been as calculated as her threats had been to the Nobles months ago. In a way, she had been play-acting the haughty daughter of privilege. But she had played the role well and gotten the effect she desired. For a moment I had genuinely hated her.

My hate had given way to grief that was now replaced by a numb confusion. I still needed to know why she had attacked Layla. As I pondered this riddle, I never, oddly enough, thought to consider Layla herself. Had something about her triggered Alexandra's rage? This question never occurred to me because, for the moment, Layla was a peripheral character in my little drama. She was just somebody I had met -- somebody to whom I felt a sense of obligation, but nothing truly deep. I had honestly expected her to move to the sidelines of my life at some point. I had no idea that I would soon see more of her, and in what manner.

At that time, my thoughts only shifted to her when we reached her apartment. It was what I had expected of an ex-assistant for a D.A. -- cheap but livable, located in the lower-middle-class side of town. She inserted her key into the lock.

The doorknob turned on its own and twisted the key in her hand. We both jumped back from the door as it opened. After last night, I was expecting anything.

Anything except for a woman with short blonde hair and glasses. I had never seen her before, but Layla obviously had.

"Jesus, Beth!"

"Where the hell were you?" the blonde woman demanded to know.

"I...I told you that I would be out tonight."

"The whole damn night? And into the morning?"

"Something came up, all right?"

The eyes of the blonde woman slid in my direction. "Something came up, huh?"

Layla's face changed from surprised to irritated. "You mind me telling what you're doing here?"

Beth turned her eyes back to her. "I came here because I assumed that you would be back before sunrise. I ended up sleeping on your couch..."

"Well, you didn't have to do that."

"I assumed that it was all right. I mean, mi casa is su casa, right? You can come to my apartment any time you want."

"I've never done that."

"I know. I gave you a damn key, but you still won't spend one night with..."

"Okay, okay. Beth? Not the time."

"It's never the time with you, Layla. You tell me that you want a relationship, but you keep your distance, you stay out all night and not call me..."

"I don't have to report to you!"

"You don't feel any obligation to me!" Beth gave me another glance. "You could at least tell me if you feel like driving stick again."

There was an uncomfortable moment of silence that made me want to turn invisible. Layla broke the silence by saying, "That's it. Leave so you can cool off."

"I'll do you one better." Beth reached into her pocket and pulled out a key. She held it toward Layla.

Layla kept still at first, then took a key from her own pocket. The two women scooped up the offered keys, and Beth headed for the stairs without looking back. I never saw her again.

I didn't know what else to do except follow Layla into her apartment like a dog afraid of getting whipped. Even with the apartment's small size, it seemed under-furnished. One of the few pieces of furniture was, of course, a stereo. (Can't have an apartment without a stereo.)

Layla walked right up to the stereo, picked a CD, inserted it into the player and turned up the volume. She leaned against the wooden case around the stereo and didn't move for an entire song. The song's instrumentation was a croaking guitar and a simple snare-and-bass drum kit. As the guitar snorted the same chords again and again, an aged man growled that he had been shot, he had been cut, he had been hit with a chair, but nobody got him down. He repeated the lyrics like a harsh mantra against the world.

When the song was over, Layla turned off the stereo and looked at me.

"T-Model Ford," I said. "Nice."

Layla smiled a bit. "You know about Ba'albaki and T-Model Ford. I guess you're pretty well-educated."

"We don't have TV down in the Tunnels."

"That would help."

Both of us kept quiet until I said, "We do have gay people down Below."

She gave me an unblinking look.

"A couple of gay guys. Alex and Tom. Oh, and a lesbian couple, too. Cynthia and Jane."

"Wow. Four whole gay people."

I smiled, now feeling silly. "Of course, considering what you've told me, you're not what they call gay."

"I'm what they call bi. I'm also what they call stupid for getting involved with that woman."

"Well, what just happened wasn't really anybody's fault."

"Of course it wasn't," Layla snapped. "But it was stupid to get involved with any one so soon after Joe's death. I wasn't ready to commit myself. I was just acting out of loneliness and thinking I could move on when I can't. And why am I explaining myself to the guy with the crazy snake-woman for a girlfriend?"

"I have no idea."

She opened her mouth to speak, then closed it. She ran her fingers through her hair and sighed. "Sorry you had to see the ugly finale."

"S'right."

"Tell you what -- why don't I make those eggs and bacon I promised you?"

"Go ahead."

She went into her kitchen which, like the rest of her apartment, was small. I stood at the doorway as she opened a fridge and pulled out a carton of eggs.

"You know," she said as she cracked eggs and dumped the yolk into a pan, "a lot of guys would really encourage their bisexual girlfriends to find a cute girl for a threesome. Hell, I've dated those kinds of guys. But Joe never once suggested it, never brought it up. When I asked him why, he just laughed and said, 'I'm barely man enough for you.'"

I chuckled. "Sounds like Joe."

She cracked one more egg, then said, "You know...it wasn't your fault that he got killed."

"If you knew what happened, then you wouldn't say that."

"I do know what happened." She looked at me. "Vincent told me about the Tower."

"Oh...well..."

"Joe didn't get killed because of you. This Crown guy murdered him to make a point to Bradbury. It was a fight to see who was the big dog, and Joe just happened to be in the middle of it."

"But if I hadn't broken into 817..."

"You're right that you shouldn't have done that. But that wouldn't have kept Joe from investigating Garner's death. Crown might have killed him, anyway."

"I...I don't know."

"I do know. If you feel obligated toward me out of guilt, stop it. You owe me nothing."

Layla opened the freezer and pulled out a plastic bag containing strips of bacon. She placed the strips in another frying pan and turned on the oven. "Of course," she said as she did this, "your girlfriend had Masilela killed for the same reason."

"I see Father told you about that as...wait, what do you mean 'the same reason?'"

"She wanted to show the Nobles who was boss, right?"

I stared briefly at Layla, then said, "Yes. How did you know that?"

"Just makes sense," she said as she shifted the eggs and bacon with a spatula. "Of course, there's also the question of whether Masilela was a threat to the Tower or just a bastard. I bet he was both."

I couldn't get it. How was Layla able to know these things? Alexandra had to tell me the same information, but Layla was able to figure it on her own.

"Personally I don't care," she said. "Based on what I've heard, the world is all the better without having Masilela in it."

"Maybe."

"No maybe about it. I would tell Alexandra that she did the right damn thing." She looked at me over her shoulder. "Except..."

"Yeah. Except."

"Can you explain to me what was going through her mind there?"

"I have no idea."

"Then maybe you should ask her."

"I'm not sure we're ever going to see each other again."

"Oh, you will. You've got it bad for her. Could you explain that to me as well?"

I could hear the truth in Layla's voice. My love for Alexandra had already taken several blows. It could sustain this one. And as I considered her imperial act of last night, I realized that she had been trying to hide something from me.

I planned to see her that very day. And to make a request.

"Come to the Tunnels tonight," I said to Layla.

"Why?"

"Just come. I want to show you something. At least, I hope I'll be able to."

"Again, why?"

"So you'll understand the things you don't understand."

Layla looked at my earnest face, then said, "I'll check my appointments, but I think I can squeeze you in." She turned back to the oven and laughed nervously. "God, I can't believe that breaking up with my girlfriend is the least dramatic thing to happen in the last twenty-four hours."

"You wanted to know everything."

"And, boy, am I getting everything."

"I'm glad you got to see the Tunnels, or part of it."

"It's an amazing place," Layla said. She was silent for a few moments as she tended to the cooking food. Then she told me --

"But it's also crap."

I felt like somebody had thumped me on the nose. "What?"

"The Tunnels," Layla said with her back turned to me. "The whole idea behind them is crap."

I was temporarily at a loss for words before saying, "So that's why you wanted to come here. You want to insult my home freely."

"I'm just giving you my honest opinion."

"Your honest opinion is bullshit."

Layla looked at me. "I don't believe in hiding."

"We don't hide."

"Right. It was so easy to find you."

"The Tunnels are a refuge. A shelter. Our secrecy is needed to maintain the Tunnels' safety."

"So if somebody really needs to use your place, how does he find his way there?"

"Well, obviously some people have."

"Lucky them." She turned away from me and flipped over a strip of bacon.

"Look...I've had the same doubts as you. There was a time when the Tunnels seemed too small to me. But I know now that the world needs a special place like the Tunnels."

"It has two places like that -- you and the High Tower."

"Oh, wait now. Edward Bradbury tried the same line on me."

"He's Alexandra's father, right?"

"Yeah. What he said didn't hold true then and it doesn't hold true now."

"The Tower and the Tunnels are different."

"What I said."

"You wouldn't kill to protect your territory."

I couldn't respond to that at first. Layla briefly glanced at me.

Then I said, "We wouldn't kill just to protect our secrecy. We wouldn't kill a nosy book-dealer."

Layla nodded. "You're right there."

"It comes down to power. The Tower is built on great wealth and influence. It will do anything to hold onto its privileges. The Tunnels are just the Tunnels. We're for people who have no power."

"And do you empower them?"

"We..." And that's where I hit a wall. I struggled for an answer, an argument, a rebuttal. I could only watch Layla finish her cooking and slide the food onto plates. Then she turned to me and said --

"I'm a woman, I'm bisexual and I'm an Arab living a mile away from Ground Zero. I have plenty of reasons to go to the Tunnels. But I haven't and I won't. To me the Tunnels are a way of accepting your powerlessness. And I think that's as bad as abusing power."

She removed knives and forks from a drawer, then set breakfast on a tiny table in the corner. She sat on one of two chairs next to the table. When she saw my moody expression, she said, "Jacob, I'm sorry but that's how..."

"Someone once told me, 'The world is all the same.' That the Tunnels weren't really different from the city Above."

"I agree. But you people in the Tunnels act like you have a right to hide from Above."

"But the person also told me that the city needs the Tunnels, that it needs a special refuge for the powerless." I paused, then said, "My father certainly needs it."

Layla folded her hands under her chin and said, "Maybe. But I think there is a place for Vincent in the wide open as well."

I sighed. "That's something I've wondered, too."

"Of course..." Layla placed her hands on the table. "...I just found out about the Tunnels. So maybe I shouldn't talk smack about them."

"No, no. You're asking real questions."

"It is a beautiful place, just based on what I've seen."

"Oh, you ain't seen nothin' yet. Just remember -- Joe protected the Tunnels, but I bet he thought some of the same things you did."

"Joe was also a bit sentimental. I'm not."

"Oh, I bet you're just a teddy bear inside, Layla."

She smiled and held up a fork. "Sit down and eat your fucking eggs."

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Despite what she had said about the Tunnels, my breakfast with Layla perked me up a bit. I liked her. She took no shit. She had a reckless side to which I could relate. She could handle big bizarre truths about underground communities and secret societies.

So I couldn't figure out why Alexandra tried to kill her. Only one person knew why.

I had stayed away from 817 Fifth Avenue ever since I last met Alexandra. I had been tempted several times to just stand outside the building and stare at the top floor, but I resisted the temptation.

Now I was back. I received some looks from people who worked and lived there. I was a young man who had brought trouble in the past, but they were under orders from the wealthiest resident to leave me alone.

During the last time I came to 817, you needed a special key to reach the top floor. The control panel had been changed since then. The top floor button lit up as easily as all the rest. The key had probably been Crown's idea. I remembered his cold colorless eyes and couldn't help thinking that the world would no more miss him than Masilela. Did that mean Alexandra had been right to...

I shut off those thoughts as the elevator rose. When I reached the top, I entered the front hallway to Bradbury's apartment. I walked up to the front door and raised my hand. The door opened before I could knock. Edward Bradbury faced me, still looking tired and impeccably dressed.

"Come in," he said and stepped aside. I'm sure his people had given him notice of my coming the moment I had entered 817.

I entered his fancy yet tasteful apartment. He closed the door, turned to me and said, "What the hell happened last night?" His voice remained mild as he said it, but the anger was there.

I kept a neutral face as I answered, "What makes you think anything happened?"

"Because Alexandra returned here very upset." I didn't ask how he would know about any of her moods behind that dark covering. After all, she was his daughter.

I wasn't ready to tell him about Alexandra's murderous rage -- not until I was sure what had caused it. Furthermore, I didn't want him to know about Layla and that she knew about him. That's why I said --

"If Alexandra hasn't told you, then I won't tell you."

"That wasn't in our agreement, Jacob."

"We didn't really agree on anything, Edward. You were the one who wanted a favor from me. You wanted to know why Alexandra killed Masilela."

I sauntered over to a chair and flopped myself down on it. "And that," I said, "I can tell you."

Bradbury remained standing as I related what Alexandra had told me last night. I gave him the Cliff's Notes version of how Masilela would have become a threat to the Tower. I skipped over what Alexandra had wanted to omit -- that the Tower could easily exceed its self-imposed boundaries.

After I was done, Bradbury slowly nodded. "Yes. That makes sense. Now why didn't she explain this earlier?"

I snorted. "Isn't it obvious? She knew that you would come to me. And that would give her an excuse for her to come to the Tunnels."

Bradbury looked at me with his deceptively cloudy eyes. "And," he said, "to make us meet again."

"Huh?"

"Well, it's possible that she wanted us to renew our relationship."

"Our...our what?"

"I'm her father. You're her lover. Shouldn't we have some kind of...communication?"

I twisted my face with incredulity. "You mean, talking just like any guy and his girlfriend's dad?"

"Not exactly. But she might have a reason for us to be talking like this."

"Well, that would make sense...except for the fact that she killed somebody to keep us apart."

"But remember -- I wanted to establish a relationship with you on my terms. Maybe she's trying to create a relationship between us on her terms."

"On what kind of terms?"

Bradbury shrugged. I shook my head in exasperation. "For your information," I said, "not everybody is like you. Not everybody has hidden agendas."

"Actually I think of myself as a rather simple fellow. But you're right. Not everybody has a hidden agenda. You, for example, tend to be very straightforward."

He walked over to me with his hands in his pockets. "Alexandra, however, is an extremely unique individual. Her upbringing, her gift, her own personal needs -- imagine all those things coming together in one person's soul. And now she has blood on her hands. Can you honestly say that you 'know' her?"

Oh, Eddie, I thought, if you had seen what I had seen last night...

"That's why I need to know more. Whatever happened between the two of you last night, I hope you're still close enough to..."

"Oh, no, wait. I gave you what you wanted."

"If I am to protect her, then I have to..."

I quickly stood up. "You don't want to protect her," I snapped.

Bradbury paused, then said, "What?"

"You're just afraid that she'll exceed your control. She's not your daughter. She's one of your possessions, just like this apart..."

Bradbury slapped my face. I had never seen anyone move that fast. One moment his hand was tucked casually in a pocket, the next it has just gone across my cheek.

"Don't you dare say such a thing." Bradbury's voice was low and barely contained in its rage. "You think I regard her as a mere thing? I love her more than anything or anyone else."

I wasn't impressed. In fact, I felt a strong urge to throw Bradbury through a window. I was so sick of his crap, so sick of the High Tower, so sick of the problems his group had caused me. I wanted to smash the biggest obstacle between Alexandra and me.

I resisted the urge, but not just because Bradbury's security force was probably close to us. He was still right about one thing -- he was the only one in the Tower willing to give Alexandra safety for her own sake.

And he was no longer the biggest obstacle between Alexandra and me. Just like him I needed to know what was happening in her mind and her soul.

Bradbury took a long breath, then said in a softer voice, "I admit that I don't want her to exceed the boundaries I've placed on her. Am I different than any other father in that regard?"

I said nothing, but rubbed my red cheek. Bradbury winced and said, "I apologize."

"Forget it. So...where is she?"

That was the moment I heard music from an another room. Somebody had just turned on a record player. A choir could be heard singing in Latin. Based on the sound, I guessed that the composer was Palestrina.

We looked at each other. Was it my imagination, or was there a bit of nervousness behind Bradbury's tired facade?

"We both love her," he said, "but we can never forget what's she capable of doing."

He made a small motion of his head to indicate that we were done talking. Time to talk with Alexandra.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

I had been in Alexandra's room twice before. In the two months since I had last been there, she had made no changes. The simple cot still pressed itself against a wall. Even though there was a working bulb, candles provided the only illumination in the room. Like my father, Alexandra favored old vinyl records over CD's. The voices of men and boys floated from a small speaker. "Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis." Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.

And just as when I first saw her, Alexandra was kneeling on the floor and looking away from the entrance. Only this time it was different -- this time it was harder to enter and close the door behind me. As I walked toward her, I felt that I should run away. You're involved in something even more dangerous than before, the voice of caution said. Time to cut your losses and end this misguided affair.

Yet there I was at her side again. She was reading a leather-bound book. She had taken off her dark glasses, but the scarves and the hood still covered the rest of her head.

I knelt on the floor. She didn't look at me. I cleared my throat and said, "You probably heard me talking with your father."

She made no response.

"We're both worried about you. In our own separate ways." I paused, then added, "Of course, I have extra reason to be worried, don't I?"

Alexandra closed the book and placed it on the floor. She turned her red eyes in my direction.

"Look, I...I know what was said last night. But I still care for you. And I think you still care for..."

She flung back the hood of her cloak. With her one violent tear she ripped the scarves off her face. I remember the last time she made such a sudden move -- right before she bit into Crown.

She lunged for me, her mouth thrust toward my face. I instinctually grabbed her shoulders. I could see nothing but her green face, and felt nothing but fear.

She kissed me. It wasn't the delicate kiss I had given her two months ago. She filled my mouth with her warm breath, and her tongue crossed my lips. She shoved a hand down my jeans and held tight to my groin.

I hardened in a second. I pulled her to me and worked one of my hands under her blouse. I felt her soft breasts. And, yes, I could feel the scales there as well, but their intricate patterns were like electricity under my fingertips. I grabbed the cloth and shredded her blouse into a dark rag draped over her back. The skin from her neck to the navel was exposed; all of that strange, beautiful skin marked by deformity but also blessed by God.

We fell to the floor. I helped her remove my jacket. She pulled her lips from my mouth so she could pull the shirt over my head. This gave me a moment to ask a question that you, dear reader, might be asking already --

What the hell is going on?

The question submerged as she kissed me again. Somehow it rose to my mind again. I could have so easily gotten lost in Alexandra's body, but then I remembered the other Alexandras -- the dark recluse, the beautiful speaker, the woman empowered by her father's fortune, the one who was trapped by it, the cold Alexandra, the passionate Alexandra in my arms, the Alexandra with the fangs...

I pushed myself away from her, backing up to a wall. She crawled after me for a few feet, but then stopped. We both panted and stared at each other. She was on her hands and knees. Her naked breasts rose and fell with each heavy breath.

"No more," I croaked. "Don't play with me any more."

"I...don't...play with you," she said in an equally hoarse voice. "Others...play...with me. The world plays...with me. God plays..."

She sat on the floor with her knees raised toward the ceiling. She pulled the torn blouse over her breasts.

I didn't know what to say. I was now facing the possibility that there was no rationale for Alexandra's actions. Was she simply insane? Was I any less insane for thinking I could make a life with her? I couldn't move or speak until the weight of these questions.

It was Alexandra who broke the silence. "Do you want to know why I tried to kill Layla?" Of course, I never told Alexandra the name of Layla. She didn't need to be told.

At that moment, the question seemed strangely irrelevant. However, I kept still and quiet as Alexandra spoke --

"When you left me in your chambers, I felt a sudden urge to see your library." She pointed at the book on the floor. "You know of my attraction to words. When I reached the Library...I saw her. She did not yet see me. You know that I can see the future on occasion; you know that I once had a vision of planes being flown into two mighty towers. As I looked at this woman, I had another vision. It frightened me so much that I was overwhelmed with a desire to kill her. I never felt like that before -- so enraged, so driven by my own wrath."

I finally spoke. "What...what did you see in your vision?"

She fixed her red eyes upon me. They were filled with torment as she said --

"I saw her kill you."

 


Continued in Chapter 5