She never broke eye contact. Hers were the eyes of a seductress, open a little wider than perhaps they needed to be, but this served to accentuate them. She wore a business suit, yes, but it was tailored to invite lascivious notions into the minds of anyone who was habitually interested in the feminine form.
This was not enchantment. The woman was plainly gifted with beauty, her dark brown hair contrasting with her fair skin. Thall must have calculated that such an emissary would throw Richard off balance, but on this count, it was Airbright who immediately sensed an advantage. Certainly, in his days of youth, Richard Airbright’s weakness had been women, but thirty years, a failed marriage, and the fact that this “Sweet Clara” could not be more than ten years older than his own daughter undercut what Richard presumed to be Henry’s desired effect.
“And how is the man?”
“Not yet ready to see you, truth be told.”
“You must forgive me, I have had an exhausting day. But then, I suppose you know what has happened.” Richard went to his liquor cabinet and took out a bottle of Gensdon Whiskey.
Richard scoffed. “Coming from you, that is a strange thing to say.” He handed her a glass, which she took after some hesitation. “Do I detect a slight northern accent? I hope you don’t mind my speculation.”
“Not at all. I am from Errister.”
“And what did you do there before you were employed by my dear friend Henry?”
“I was a whore.”
“You don’t prefer the term ‘street priestess?’”
“We were unregistered. Does my résumé make you uncomfortable, Mr. Airbright? Many of your class would be put off.”
“Not at all. A man of my family name could hardly pass judgment on you for that.” Richard sipped some of the whiskey. “Murder, on the other hand, is perhaps a touch more dire a crime.”
“Do I appear to be an assassin, Mr. Airbright?”
“I find that appearances are rarely indicative of a person’s nature and character.”
“I have never harmed a soul,” said Clara.
“Directly, perhaps. I suppose he has offered you money? Some material comforts? I assure you, these things are not worth involving yourself with a man such as Henry Thall.”
“You say that from a privileged position. How much is the Airbright fortune?”
Richard smiled. “Quite right.” Clara sipped some of her own whiskey.
“What I am attempting to discern,” Richard began again. “Is just what Henry means by all these atrocities. I am not so egotistical to assume that they are all intended for me.”
“I cannot say. My employer’s ultimate intentions are not something that he shares.”
“So why have you come here, then?”
“I am here to deliver a message, though I’m sure you had surmised as such. Mr. Thall wishes to assure you that his intentions are not revenge. He understands your reasons for doing what you did in your youth, and he bears you no ill will. Therefore, he has asked me to make you the following offer. Leave Retrein. You may travel south, to Narcia, though he recommends traveling farther still.”
“May I ask you something, Clara?” said Richard.
“Does this ominous warning not concern you? You seem to be a woman of flesh and blood. If Herny wishes to warn me of some imminent calamity, why do you not take that advice yourself and flee?”
“I must remain here to assist Mr. Thall.”
Richard leaned back in his chair. He had seen something in her eye as she said that last sentence. He may have believed her to be merely unintelligent before – a pretty, naïve face for Thall’s dreadful machinations – but now he saw something far more disconcerting. There was a dark apathy in her. An indifference toward her own survival and well-being.
“If you were in my position, would you take Henry’s offer?”
“I am sure that I do not know your exact position, Mr. Airbright. But Mr. Thall seemed to suggest that he still considers you a friend. He hopes that you will not let your jealousy prevent you from ensuring your safety.”
“Jealousy?” Richard balked. He? Jealous of Henry? What lies had Clara been told? Or had Henry reversed the truth of their history together in his own mind?
Richard’s mind was aflame. He had yet to determine anything, truly. What had this Clara gleaned from him?
Perhaps it was this moment of inattention that prompted Clara to say “I must be on my way. Please consider Mr. Thall’s advice. I do think that he is still quite fond of you, despite everything.”
Richard was shaken from his thoughts. “Of course. Please, allow me to call you a cab.”
“That won’t be necessary. My car is just pulling up now.”
Richard looked out the window. A long black limousine had just stopped in front of the house. The back of the vehicle belched out strange blue smoke. “Well, in that case, let me get your coat.” Richard stood up and found Clara’s jacket on the rack. He whispered a brief incantation that might allow him to track the jacket, but he expected that the enchantment would be discovered and broken before Clara left the block.
As he walked her to the door, she said to him “It was a pleasure to finally meet you.”
“Likewise, Miss Clara,” said Richard, and he opened the door.
Where Isabelle had just arrived.
Richard froze. Clara stopped, half-smiling as she regarded Isabelle.
“Hello,” said Isabelle, her eyes questioning her father.
“Oh,” said Richard. “Er, this is Clara. She was just leaving.”
Isabelle shifted her book bag to her other arm and extended her hand. “Isabelle.”
“Charmed,” said Clara. She turned to Richard. “I did not realize you had a daughter.”
“Well, you mustn’t miss your car,” said Richard, and he stood aside for Clara to go. He watched her make her way down the front walk. The limousine driver ran around the back to open the door for her. As she stepped inside, she looked back at Richard and smiled.
“Who was that, dad?” said Isabelle.
Richard remained silent, watching the limousine with its horrid smoke pull away.
“Isn’t she a bit young for you? No offense,” said Isabelle.
“Go up to your room,” he said.
“Dad, I was only joking…”
He turned to her and said, solidly, “Go.”
She did not need to be told again.
Richard watched the limousine disappear from view as it turned around the corner. He slammed the door shut. He walked back to the living room and picked up his whiskey glass. He began to pour another drink, but he soon found that half the liquor was splashing down onto the carpet, his hand was shaking so much.
With a growling scream, Richard flung the glass against the wall. After that, he was silent and motionless for several minutes.
“Well, well, well,” said Whispering Jim.
“What the hell do you want, demon?”
“Only to serve you, master.”
“I have no time for your snark, Jim.”
“That’s all right. Allow me to provide some insight then.”
“You were watching our conversation?”
“Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Very well. What do you have to tell me?”
“I have read the thoughts of millions of people in my time. In this world and the last one. I prefer to avoid superlatives, because the range and breadth of human emotion is so vast. But when I looked into the thoughts of our dear Sweet Clara, I saw one of the most terrified people I have ever had the pleasure of reading. Someone that frightened can be useful. She only needs something greater to fear.”
Richard looked up, locking his gaze with his demonic familiar. He was helpless to prevent a smile from curling his lips.
(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2014)