he poised with the baton, about to place it to my head, thumb at the release catch, and then I heard the sweetest thing in my entire life: sirens, coming closer, coming close, swinging through the night, sounding like angel-song. The woman cursed silently, shoved the baton into her jacket pocket, realised she was bleeding, put a hand to the wound and ran off, escaping into the frenzied jungle of the Zig-Zag. Just like that, and just like before, she was gone and I was still alive.
Physically I figured I was okay, bruised and hurting but not seriously damaged. I didn’t have the stomach or the patience to go through it with the patrol officers, to relive the thing in tiresome detail; tomorrow would be time enough for that. So I hot-footed it out of there after giving Young Ma a hug so strong I half-feared it might crush the two of us. And after all that, I forgot to take my wallet.
I didn’t want to talk to my fellow cops, but I wanted to talk. Two blocks away, across the street from my car, I found a payphone and called Odette. The same soft tone, the same measured speech pattern…and the same answering machine message. ‘You’ve reached the home of Odette Crawford. I can’t take your call…’ Fuck it, I thought, and fuck you, Odette. Why aren’t you at home? Why aren’t you there when I need you? I know there are no obligations anymore, there is no ‘us’ anymore, but goddamn it, I need someone right now.
And now I was really pissed off, almost physically weighed down by stress, unrelieved adrenaline, and more than that, some indefinable ennui. Loneliness, I guess. I admitted it to myself: right at that moment, I was lonely. I wanted company. I wanted to touch someone, in some way beyond the banalities of professional interaction or the maniacal
extremities of lethal combat. I wanted fun, I wanted sex, I wanted conversation or a connection, and if I couldn’t get any of those, I wanted temporary oblivion.
As the old saying goes, be careful what you wish for.
hit a bar nearby, a familiar old haunt with a familiar old tab, and was onto my sixth or seventh brandy, that floaty, slippery feeling of inebriation now soaking through my head, when someone came and stood next to me. I smelled her first: a distinctive perfume, something almost traditional about it but at the same time untried and newborn, for want of a better word. And more savoury than sweet, if you follow me. Notes of orange blossoms and oakwood, a hint of patchouli, and something else, something hiding in the background, reluctant to reveal itself… Her perfume made me think of joss sticks and Middle Eastern food, of a woman clad in black on a murderously hot day, kohl lining her amber eyes.
Then I heard her, a gentle voice, precise, with a pleasingly sardonic undertone. She said, ‘Art is wine and experience the brandy we distil from it’, and it took me about two days to clock that she was speaking to me and not someone else.
I turned to face her and what a face it was. I almost knocked over my drink. This girl was smokin’ hot. Beauty to launch a thousand ships of desire, a body built for both comfort and speed. She was in her early twenties, tall and voluptuous, with fiery red hair in soft waves, large green eyes, plump red lips, alabaster skin…and a figure to make a sculptor cry or
lose their nerve or just give up on the whole damn thing. No, she was like a sculpture made flesh, the idealised rendition of the womanly form come to life. And she was talking to me.
Naturally I responded with all the wit and charm of the average barfly: ‘Brandy is dandy but winer could be finer’, laughing and lifting my glass in salute. ‘Though clearly it isn’t, or I wouldn’t be drinking this stuff.’ I tipped a finger to the bartender: ‘Same again, please.’ Then I turned to my Venus de Milo in her fitted suit, waist nipped in impossibly
tightly by the belt, and said, ‘You want a drink?’
She smiled warmly and slid onto the stool beside me, her skirt rising slowly along her perfectly turned thighs. I swallowed heavily and stared into my glass. She said to the girl behind the counter, ‘I’ll have what she’s having’, then to me, ‘Actually, what are you having? Just out of curiosity, you understand.’
‘Curiosity killed the cat. Pronounced dead on arrival at morgue. Police open full investigation. Curiosity called in for questioning but released due to lack of hard evidence. …Shut up, Genie. You’re not funny.’ I lit a cigarette and offered her the pack. ‘Ragnaud-Sabourin. Never heard of it myself until a couple of days ago and never drank it until tonight, but fuck me if it doesn’t go down easy. Actually surprised a dump like this sells it. Classy goddamn stuff.’
I laughed and the bartender frowned, then tried unsuccessfully to hide the frown. I said, ‘Kidding, kidding. I love this place.’
The red-haired beauty accepted a cigarette and said, ‘So where exactly does one find out about obscure brandies these days?’
‘Crazy old coots, mainly. You need a light?’
She plumped up her plump lips and placed the cigarette between them, looking at me expectantly. My eyes were wet and my mouth was as dry as sand. I flicked the lighter and she puffed a smoky cloud around her head. She looked like a scene from a black and white movie.
‘And why is a young woman like you hanging around with crazy old coots?’
I bowed ironically. ‘I thank you for the compliment, but I’m not so young. Not compared to you, at any rate.’
‘How old are you? If you don’t mind me asking.’ She smiled, brilliant and overwhelming. ‘You can refuse to answer if you like.’
Refuse you? Yeah, right. ‘I’m thirty-one. Just gone. You?’
She took a sip of her drink. ‘Oh…a little younger, but not too much. Mm. That is nice.’
‘These mad old broads know their brandy. What’s your name?’
‘You can call me…Cassandra.’
I smiled to try and hide my disappointment. ‘Right. A pro. I should have known. A looker like you…’
‘A pro? You mean a prostitute?’ Her laugh was like sparkling wine being poured down a tower of crystal glasses. ‘No. I’m not a pro.’
‘So what’s with the name thing?’
‘I’m not a prostitute, but I don’t necessarily always like to use my real name. Girls have secrets, don’t we?’
I shrugged – sure, we have secrets. Whatever you say. Jesus, she was distractingly attractive. It was hard to just sit here and concentrate on having a simple conversation. Her beauty kept interrupting, getting in the way, distorting things, like it had its own gravity. I wanted her so badly I almost literally ached, and I was annoyed at myself for that. I felt uncontrolled, bereft of my own volition. I was naked, incapacitated by sex and sensuality, made stupid by it.
‘So what sorrows are you drowning tonight?’ I asked, purely to distract my thoughts.
‘I sort of figured you weren’t having a party. Got a lot of sorrows to drown, honey?’
‘Ah…I don’t know. Yeah, I suppose so. Sorrows to drown, memories to kill…stuff to forget. Drink is a fine companion on your journey towards obliteration.’
‘That’s good. Who said that?’
I squinted at her, mildly confused. ‘Actually, I think I did.’
She smiled again and blew a smoke ring which sailed out before us, then paused before ascending, floating up towards the lights above the bar, glasses hanging from hooks, shimmer and reflections. It looked like a cheap version of paradise up there. Angel, devil, sin and desire, that heavenly body.
I said, ‘So why do you call yourself Cassandra, Cassandra?’
‘I told you why.’
‘I mean, why that name? What, you foretell disaster and nobody will believe you? I know that feeling, kiddo.’
‘Actually, I’m more of an anti-Cassandra. I’ll tell you that something wonderful awaits in your future, but you still won’t believe me.’
I turned to face her straight on. ‘Yeah? Like what?’
‘Like you and I will be in bed together by midnight and we won’t leave it until midday tomorrow.’
hoa. The world went tipsy on me then, or maybe I went tipsy on the world. The bar spun around my head and I thought, This is all going way too fast. These fantastical situations simply didn’t happen to me, to Genie, solid little Genie with her solid cropped hair and solid wardrobe, a regular kinda gal. I felt like I was being led, hand-held, into an entranced spiral, pitch-black, silent and velvet-edged, a vortex of mania and delight going down, down, down into the belly of the world…
‘Are you alright?’
She touched me on the shoulder and I realised my head was on the counter. The bartender gave a concerned look; I snapped back to attention, affronted, and shouted, ‘I’m fine! Everything is fine. Two more here. You’ll have another, won’t you, Cassandra the anti-Cassandra?’
She said, ‘Whatever the lady desires’ and slugged back her brandy.
The bartender hesitated, looking around for her supervisor. I raised my hands, composed a ‘serious’ sort of face and said, ‘I’m fine. You know me, right? I’m often in here. You know me. I don’t cause trouble. So.’ I clicked my fingers. ‘Two more of your finest Sabnaud-Blabourin. Pssschh! Did you hear what I just said? I fucked up the pronunciation.’
Cassandra and I giggled together, conspiratorial and giddy. The bar girl slung out two brandies and we floored them, then two more, then we moved onto shots of Jägermeister. Fiery, choking, almost medicinal. Bang, bang, bang, and another for good luck. No more conversation at this stage – she’d said what she wanted and we both knew exactly what I wanted and why talk when you can gaze in open-mouthed lust and admiration instead?
I told the bartender to put it all on my tab and then we were stumbling out the door, sloppily throwing ourselves and each other into overcoats and hats, and then we were stumbling into a cab which had miraculously pulled up to the curb right where we needed it, and then Cassandra was kissing me in the back of the cab, the spicy after-smell of the shots on her breath, as the driver sighed in a bored kind of way and drove us to my apartment building, and then we were stumbling in my front door and tumbling to the floor together in a swirl of clothes and limbs and mussed hair and perfume clouds and her mouth on mine and my fingers entwined with hers and our bodies entwined and our selves entwined and then all was blackness and silence and rest.
And the following morning, the whole case exploded.