Gillian placed the bowl of fruit on the table. It was the finishing touch. Real fruit, not artificial. Bananas, yellow, and oranges, and apples. The glow of the fruit worked well with the tints of the varnished wood paneling. The table was now perfect, the antique wood covered with a damask tablecloth and the tablecloth adorned not just with the fruit but also with flowers.
The flowers, too, were living rather than artificial, and had come from one of Gillian's window boxes at House Thimble. She rarely used flowers because they were so expensive and she could only grow a few, but for a special client she would raid her window boxes. Or, if the client was ready to foot the bill, go to the expense of buying in big bouquets ultimately sourced from one of the greenhouses of Sclag. But it could take months to sell a house, so flower extravaganzas were usually out of the question.
How she loved the play of light on flowers! As a younger woman, she had sometimes fantasized about being a light designer, a profession which did not exist, and never had. Designing with light, swathes of it, rainbows dancing at her command, prisms of glass flaring into chromatic ecstasies. With the passing of the years, the fantasies had faded, but flowers themselves remained an important part of her life.
"So expensive," sighed Gillian, thinking of the merciless price of flowers.
Anything that could be extruded from a chemical vat on Gasproid Helm, anything that could be stamped out by the millions in a microchip factory, was getting cheaper and cheaper, but living things -- living beauty -- that was getting priced out of existence.
She remembered a world which had been greener ...
"But let's not romanticize," said Gillian to herself briskly.
The greener world had been real -- was still real, for that matter -- but it was the world of the island of Sclag. Green, then, environmental green, was the color of dirt, filth, poverty, ignorance, alcoholism, incest and child abuse, the color of existence in the rural slums. Yes, let's not romanticize.
That was when Yittery Cricket started chirping, Yittery Cricket being her cellphone, a gadget she had once sworn she would never acquire, but which had become an indispensable tool now that her life was tied in to the real estate business.
"Zisperchilp Glamor, Gillian Chess speaking."
"Uh, hi, this is Sable. I thought I'd better check -- are you going to be home this afternoon?"
"Sable?" said Gillian.
"You know, Sable Tauranga, Open Mansions. You wanted to see me, right?"
What was this about? Open Mansions rang a bell. One of those Conflux companies, maybe, one of the predatory corporations that wanted to skyscraper Zisperchilp. But Gillian had no recollection of setting up an appointment with any such company. And the name Sable, that didn't register. A memory lapse? She was only sixty, and memory lapses were the stuff of the theoretical future.
"You're not one of those octopus people, are you?" said Gillian.
On the fringes of the world of money was the world of weirdness, the world of let's get rich quick, and the octopus people were amongst the worst of the weird. They were starting to get out of hand, practicing invasive salesmanship, a selling technique modeled on the home invasions which had been invented by hardcore criminals.
"Octopus? Uh, no, I'm not an octopus, I'm a girl."
"You are not a girl," said Gillian, reprovingly. "You are a woman. I'll be home today from three o'clock onwards. Don't wear perfume, I'm allergic to it."
The perfume of flowers she loved, but those "aroma shock" formulations that were all the rage amongst younger women, the ones that made them stink like the aftermath of a chemical accident, those she couldn't stand. And, yes, she was allergic to the miasmas of those cosmetic pong vapors, which made her nose itch and her eyes water.
"Three o'clock," said the caller. "Can I just ask -- "
"Sorry, incoming call," said Gillian, hearing the high-pitched ting tong of the call waiting bell.
And with that she cut the caller off. She didn't really want a stranger turning up on her doorstep, particularly not a stranger who, in all probability, was going to try to sell her something. But it only takes a few seconds to say, face to face, "Sorry, not for me, goodbye, thank you."
Today she didn't have time for prolonged telephone interrogations. She needed her phone free. She was expecting a number of important calls, including one from Miss Havisham, who was going to say yes or no on Chimneysweep Palazzo, and if Miss H. said it was a go, then, goodness me, that was going to be a scramble. She would need to get extra furniture from somewhere, unless that Lollipop deal went through, which would mean she would get the Bezina mahogany back. Or unless Pip came back with the keys to the warehouse. If the worst came to the worst, legally she could go ahead and break into the warehouse, but then the burglar alarm would go off and the police wouldn't be happy with her.
"Gillian," said Gillian, answering the incoming call that was waiting for her attention.
"Yes, this is she. And you are ...?"
"I think you know."
At first, Gillian did not think she did. The man's voice was deep, making her think of tobacco pipes and beards, and he sounded amused, as if he was involved in making a sardonic joke. She could not place him. Then, at last, she did.
"Ah!" she said. "Slidell! Charles Slidell! How are you, Charlie? It's been years."
"You misconstrue me," said the voice on the phone.
"Not Charles," said Gillian, and was annoyed to hear her voice going higher than it should. Pulling it back to her businesswoman octaves, she continued. "Well, I'm running out of men. My dancing days are over, you see. Who are you, if I may be so bold as to ask?"
"Danzburg," said the caller.
"No," said Gillian.
When the phone rings, you never know who is calling. But she had not imagined it might be Danzburg, no, not for a moment. She had known he was still alive -- she had chanced to see him on the ferry a month or so previously -- but she had honestly thought that he was gone from her life. That they would never meet again.
"We need to talk," said Danzburg. "A delicate matter, not one I want to discuss on the phone. Are you home now?"
"No, I'm not. I'm at a client's. I won't be back until three."
"Three, then," said Danzburg.
"But I'm having a visitor," said Gillian. "Coming at three, I mean. A young woman, I'm not sure what it's about, but it might be one of those octopus ranching things."
"Then maybe she might be interested in a multi-level marketing thing I've got going," said Danzburg. "Scented stuff, everything from incense to deodorant."
"Danzburg, I -- "
"Don't worry, Gillian, I remember about your allergies. I won't be bringing any product with me. Three o'clock, did you say? I'll be there."
And, with that, he was gone.
This was the phone call Gillian had been hoping she would never receive. Danzburg must be meaning to talk to her about the past, about what he had done for her in the past. What else could possibly be too sensitive to discuss over the telephone? Nothing that she could imagine.
Everything has its price, and Gillian had always known that there would be a price for Danzburg's assistance, even though that had never been explicitly stated at the time. She owed Danzburg, and he was within his rights to call in the debt. Optimally, all he would want was money. She didn't have anything you could call "spare money", but she had a bit in the bank, chiefly the money she had earmarked for the deposit she was going to need if she ended up negotiating a deal to buy House Thimble. If Danzburg's price was financial, and if she could meet it, she would be happy to pay and have done with this business.
But if his price was not financial?
"My dancing days are over," said Gillian.
If Danzburg Tosterburger was after something other than cold hard cash, Gillian could not begin to imagine what that might be.
On her way home, driving along in her little red Yoptauto Trundle Turtle, Gillian reflected about the past, and the turbulence which had brought Danzburg into her life.
Gillian Maventa Chess had married young, at the age of fourteen. Her first child, to whom she had given the name of Roncy, had been born two years later, when Gillian was sixteen. Ten years later, at the age of twenty-six, she had given birth to a second son, Ibrahim. And ten years after that, at the age of thirty-six, a daughter had arrived, little Lindarella Chess, she who now, grown to adulthood, grown to the age of twenty-four -- how time flies! -- went by the name of Ursula Pagan.
A happy marriage, all things considered. But, five years previously, her husband had unexpectedly died, and, in the aftermath of his death, Gillian had discovered an unpleasant surprise. They were in debt, and badly so, the reason being her husband had squandered a small fortune through gambling, and had borrowed money which he could not repay. She had never known that he had gambled. Not until after he had died and some very unpleasant characters had shown up.
Gillian found herself in a nasty situation. She was a widow of slender means, fifty-five years of age, and she was being asked to pay large sums of money which she simply did not have. It was made clear to her that if she could not pay with cash then she would end up paying with her life. Exceptions could not be made, otherwise everyone would be asking for free money.
As a good citizen should, Gillian went to the police, who told her they could have a patrol car drive past the house every so often. It was indicated to her that this offer of help should make her feel privileged.
In desperation, Gillian turned to her husband's old friend, the exorcist Gelbert Proctor Tosterburger, who was not just any old exorcist but the City Exorcist, the man who took the role of exorcist at federal executions. But Gelbert rejected her. What did he say? "I'm not a hitman."
So Gillian begged help from Gelbert's son, Danzburg, who, at the time, was under indictment for the crime of high treason, and was on trial for his life. While the court was in recess due to the illness of Judge Poplish, Danzburg attended to the problem.
What exactly did he do? Gillian did not like to think. She hoped he had not actually killed anyone. But, whatever he had done, the individuals who had been troubling her appeared to have disappeared from the mortal universe, and she had never heard the faintest whisper or rumor of any of them ever again.
For which service there would, she presumed, be a price. The exorcists of Oolong Morblock were amongst the most sinister of all the people in the city state -- not the kind of people with whom you had dealings lightly. And there were some very unpleasant stories surrounding this Danzburg Tosterburger.
But, if there was to be a price, in five long years Danzburg had never yet shown any signs of coming round and naming it.
In the aftermath of the solution which Danzburg had delivered, Gillian had sold the family home on Sclag and, with the proceeds, had managed to pay off most (but not all) of her late husband's remaining debts to his three banks and the seventeen credit card companies that he dealt with.
That had left her stony broke. At the age of fifty-five, she had no job and nothing you could reasonably think of as "career prospects". A difficult position to be in since the qualifying age for the old age pension had, at that time, just been hiked from sixty-five to seventy.
Gillian borrowed money from friends, moved to Zisperhaven and set up her own business, Zisperchilp Glamor, aiming to operate on both the islands of Zisperhaven and Chilp, though in practice her business had ended up being limited to Zisperhaven. House dressing, that's what this kind of work was called, only on Zisperhaven it was more likely to involve apartments rather than free-standing houses.
Supposing your place was for sale but you were gone, and all your possessions with you, leaving your place as the province of bare floorboards and echoes, then Gillian would move in everything needed to give the place an inhabited feel, everything from beds in the bedrooms to teddy bears on the beds. The difference between an empty place and a nicely furnished property is astounding, and people in the property market were ready to pay good money for Gillian's services.
It was conceptually simple, as most practical businesses are, and Gillian was good at it. In the five years since starting up, she had repaid the money she had borrowed and, while not exactly prosperous, she was doing more than merely making ends meet. She was living in rented accommodation, a terrace house called House Thimble, but she was starting to look ahead to the day when she would buy.
A little before three, Gillian parked her car in the lock-up garage she rented near the taxi stand, and walked to House Thimble, which took less than five minutes. The garage was expensive but, on Zisperhaven, you were not allowed to own a car unless you had somewhere to garage it.
House Thimble was on the west coast of Zisperhaven, right out on the west, with a view across the waters of the Bilge Globulus to the battlements of Shiokara. Shiokara was not far away, maybe five or six kilometers, but today, as on many other days, it had disappeared in the haze of pollution, smudged out, obliterated.
Gillian could remember a time when the city state had broadcast warnings of air pollution hazards, but that was no longer done. The truth so alarmed so many people that the practice had been discontinued. These days, unless you had access to information denied to the general public, you only knew when the pollution was really bad because you started feeling off color. Gillian had been feeling slightly ill all day.
On entering her house, Gillian found that Danzburg Tosterburger had installed himself in her living room. He was sitting in her favorite armchair, drinking the brandy she kept in the decanter for guests, but never drank herself. He was a traveler, like her son Ibrahim, able to astralize and travel anywhere. Walls were no barrier for him.
Still, it was extremely insolent for him to materialize in her house while she was out. Illegal, too, if you wanted to get technical.
"Your visitor arrive yet?" said Danzburg, by way of greetings.
At that moment the doorbell rang.
"That will be her now, I think," said Gillian. "Why don't you help yourself to a little of my brandy and take a seat in one of my chairs while I go see what she wants?"
"Thank you," said Danzburg. "That sounds like an excellent suggestion."
Leaving Mr. Insolent enthroned where she had found him, Gillian went to answer the door, and found a young woman there, a norm. Definitely a norm, because she was blonde. There were no genetic markers which would tell you of a certainty that someone was an astral, but, nevertheless, it was an acknowledged truth that there were no blonde astrals. All blondes were norms.
"May I come in?" said the stranger.
"No," said Gillian. "I think we'll do this on the doorstep."
"Well, uh ..."
"I insist," said Gillian. "Please explain yourself and tell me why you're here."
The young blonde woman, Sable Tauranga, had a confusing tale to tell. This young woman was in the employ of a media corporation -- or, to use her own words, she was "an intrepid girl reporter" -- and had started researching a story about Gillian's son, Ibrahim, whose boating business was (improbably) deemed to be of interest to the wider world.
Someone had phoned Sable out of the blue to tell her that Gillian Chess wanted her to drop by to hear, in secret, certain revelations about Ibrahim's criminal past, about crimes which the mystery caller had described as being "insults to the dignity of the dead".
"Someone's playing a joke on you," said Gillian. "I never asked anyone to ask you to come here, and, believe you me, my son does not have a criminal past."
But he did, he did. However, the past was secret. The criminal records were sealed, the details suppressed by court order. Nobody could legally out Ibrahim -- could they?
Reluctantly, Sable finally apologized for her unwanted intrusion, said goodbye and walked off in the direction of the local taxi stand, which was along the street, first left then first right.
The young journalist having departed, Gillian went and confronted Danzburg. Was he the mystery stranger who had phoned Sable Tauranga, whispering scandal about Ibrahim? Was he the one who had sent Sable here today?
"No," said Danzburg, protesting his innocence. "This has nothing to do with me."
"Then how come she showed up at the same time as you?"
"I don't manage your appointment book," said Danzburg. "That's not my job. By the way, you're wearing mismatched socks."
So she was, one a slightly darker shade of blue than the other, and, what's more, a little shorter. Not the sort of mistake she usually made, but Danzburg had upset her. But ... she had made the mistake before he had upset her.
"Okay," said Gillian. "Level with me. Explain. What is all this about?"
So Danzburg explained what he wanted, what was going to happen, whether Gillian liked it or not, and when she realized he was serious, that he was really going to do this appalling thing, she found herself shuddering on the edge of tears. But pride stabilized her until Danzburg was done and out of the door, at least having the decency to depart on his own two feet rather than dematerializing and jaunting off in astral form.
Then, alone, Gillian broke down and wept.