At the girls’ disappearance Mr. Masterson, who had been walking with nothing short of an imperial air, let slip a genuine expression of surprise. But he was a man of means and power, and such men did not succumb to astonishment for long. One quick glance at Mr. Thick and the manservant had leapt to his feet as though the eyes were fists and he but a chastened child with ringing ears.
In a flash, Thick had trotted off to deal with the issue and suddenly Mrs. Smith was very much alone. She decided she should busy herself to help smooth the disruption. She figured Mr. Masterson wouldn’t mind if she brought out the first of the refreshments.
In the meantime, the man of the house was taking his seat at the head of the table, though he was obviously having difficulty hiding his perturbation. He went through all manner of gesticulation: he steepled his hands beneath his chin, then stroked it pensively. For a moment, he lifted his head and looked at his guests (all of whom were fearfully silent) as though he were about to say something. But he stopped short, and turning inwards again, frowned as though some distant memory had overcome his attention.
Mrs. Smith had slipped into the back and retrieved that night’s pre-prandial. Upon her return, she made the rounds and though the brilliant ruby liquid fairly flew off the lip of the decanter and with a soothing sibilance filled the finely wrought glasses, none dared touch it. Everyone at the table knew they should touch nothing until the Performance ensued, and that could not happen while the beautiful Beatrice was absent.
Everyone except A. Artaud.
He grabbed his glass and brought the vessel to his mouth, but the marsupial that still clung to his forearm was flustered by the sudden move, and it whisked its ringed tail, positioning it between the drink and its thirsty master’s searching lips.
“Damn it, Rimbaud! Keep that dirty thing out of my way,” Artaud swiped at the tail, which twitched so that its tip inadvertently landing in the wine. Red droplets spattered on Artaud’s shirt and the pure white tablecloth. Artaud yelled in dismay. In response, the creature hissed stupidly, showing tiny teeth, before falling and landing with a clunk on the table.“Oh no you don’t, you wicked beast. Nobody here believes you’re dead!”
But then the wine had hit his palette and Artaud was suddenly in a reverie. He purred. “This is really quite exquisite.” He took another noisy sip, and gave a salutary groan. “It’s impossible to get this sort of drink where I live.” Another long draft was followed by loud lip smacking, presumably to test the tannins. “We’re stuck suckling brine sweetened beyond recognition. You lot have it made up here, by gum.”
The marsupial ceased its death posturing and rolled onto its haunches, licking tiny lips with a very pink tongue. Artaud pushed it aside. “Away you selfish beast, you demon kin. Papa is busy!” He too licked his lips. “Mrs. Smith?” She had told him her name upon introduction. “I don’t suppose I could bother you for another glass of this splendid ambrosia.”
Everyone sat in absolute silence. Masterson had closed his eyes and leaned his head back. Mrs. Smith could practically read his mind: if I close my eyes, maybe it will all go away.
“I must ask, Masterson,” Artaud was in a cloyingly good mood. “What has happened to that exquisite creature that was on your arm? That was a good bit of legerdemain, I daresay.”
Mr. Badubim, who was just to Artaud’s left, cleared his throat and patted the cloth before him as though assuaging a hunting dog. Artaud looked at him. Badubim nodded and pursed his lips. Artaud looked around at the rest of the guests, none of whom would look at him except for Xian, the ice queen, whose eyes were icycles. “Ahem, well yes. I suppose that’s just…. hmm. Perhaps I’ve got a bit carried away.” He retrieved his pet and stuck it somewhere inside his dinner jacket.
Mrs. Smith had retreated to the sidewall next to the door when finally the girl reappeared, seated next to Masterson and batting limpid blue eyes. There was a collective sigh of relief: they could get started now.
“Before we get into the nitty-gritty,” Mr. Badubim elocuted boomingly, “it behooves us to offer a toast to our inestimable host and his beautiful daughter, Beatrice.”
“Toast my daughter before me,” Mr. Masterson rejoined in a voice that even more booming. “It is for her and all her generation that we are conducting this inquiry!”
“Of course.” Mr. Badubim raised his glass. “To Beatrice!”
Beatrice nodded her head graciously. She was on a thirty second timer.
“And now, to business!” Masterson said. “We are gathered here today to discuss no less than the fate of the entire human race!”
The pageant now in full swing, Mr. Thick was able to skulk back in unnoticed.
“If you needed help finding the control room,” Mrs. Smith whispered to him after he had sidled up next to her, “you could have just asked.”
“I didn’t have time,” Thick answered miserably. “The damn power! Ever since the seismic shifts and last month’s riots it keeps going out. And not just in Masterson’s place.”
She nodded, though not in sympathy. She didn’t remember the quakes—her home was probably too low—but the riots had borne a heavy price. Up here all they had to worry about was the momentary glitch of a hologram, by all accounts a paltry loss, but down below lives had been lost.
She looked at Beatrice’s shade, nodding vapidly and batting its eyes. Even the likes of Masterson were not untouchable. Beatrice had died during the Exodus, when whole cities had succumbed to the swarms. Those evapo-transporters who did their shifts on the surface said they could still see the bones, picked clean. Even the marrow’s desiccated web was now dry as parchment, dry as the Martian canals.
She was suddenly very tired. The night had only just begun.