Friday, May 25, 2007

Chapter Nineteen: Never Ever Call the Girl

Ethan Robson, when he wasn't lecturing, had a wispy, scratchy, slightly panicked-sounding voice. He always sounded as if he were whispering a secret that, if overheard, would cost him dearly. Today, of course, he was right.

In all the nearly 42 years he'd known Oliver, their relationship had sat on the ragged edge of violence. Even when he and Oliver had been junior-underlings-second-class at the museum, equal in rank, duties, pay and the no-chanceness of upward mobility, there had always been the scent of potential blood in the air, bodies on the ground. He had since discovered that Mina was the truly dangerous one, but there was enough unpredictable aggression around Oliver that Ethan trod carefully.

And in the times since Ethan-and-Oliver, when it had briefly been Mina-and-Oliver-and-Ethan before dissolving into Ethan. And Oliver. And Mina-and-the-girl, one thing had been made very clear to Ethan: never ever contact the girl. It was the one thing that Oliver had no sense of humor about. Once Ethan had jokingly threatened to call the child on Father’s Day, and he’d awakened several hours later to find himself hanging upside-down from a beam in the museum by his shoelaces. Oliver later apologized for his behavior by kneeling on Ethan’s throat and shoving a rare Archmandrita tesselata in his mouth. Ethan could now assert, with some authority, that the “giant peppered cockroach” tasted nothing at all like pepper.

From that day on, Ethan had pushed all thoughts of Oliver and Mina’s daughter aside. Nearly. She had, after all, completely ruined a very good thing. In the days before her conception, before Oliver even met Mina, things had been good. In their very early 20s, living in London, lowest chickens in the museum’s rigid pecking order, Ethan the effete and Oliver the thug had formed an unlikely friendship. Ethan made Oliver laugh with his stories of the well-to-do and barmy; Oliver supplied Ethan with the prurient details of his many trysts, some of them nearly true.

At first glance, a stranger might have mistook them for brothers, but the resemblance was superficial. Ethan was slender to the point of gaunt with floppy, dirty-blond hair, a thin face, and a penchant for clothes that bordered dangerously on the Byronesque. While there wasn’t actual lace on his shirts, it was hinted at. Oliver, on the other hand, was lean and muscled, a rock-climber’s body. He lifted weights and ate raw eggs to bulk up, but his muscles just stretched and lengthened instead of thickening. He kept his thick, dark hair almost military-short, and this offset eyes which more than one woman had identified as “twinkly.” He wasn’t handsome; neither of them were. But they were young and energetic and had features which Jane Austin might have described as “regular” – not handsome, but no one would be gouging their eyes out rather than look at them. Oddly, it was Ethan who came across as a bit sneaky.

Both boys were cavalierly poor in the way of young men, and they nicked many a meal after hours from the museum’s cafeteria. Their lair was the basement where Ethan encased bugs in plastic while Oliver pressed the metal plates that gave the species name and the catalog number. Ethan had the delicate touch needed for the Lucite: he could suspend the insects in plastic without snapping antennae or bending wings. In fact, on a good day, his bugs still had the illusion of flight about them. His secret? A little glycerin, carefully applied to the hair on the legs, gave a swept-back look. Minute details, meticulously combined, created a feeling of movement of which Ethan was inordinately proud. The metal plates were affixed while the Lucite was still a bit wet and sticky, and then the bugs were sorted by destination: giant drawers for most, shipping containers for some, onto a cart headed for a display cabinet upstairs for a priveleged few, though most of those were just given a plastic sheen rather than a full block.

Hiding things in the plastic cubes was Oliver’s idea. A girl he no longer had feelings other than contempt for had given him “the key to her heart.” It was actually a cheap, tiny, luggage key, but she’d presented it with such earnest ceremony, she clearly expected Oliver to cherish it forever. Down in the basement that night, he’d been toying with it while he listed all the reasons he’d gone off her. Her hair was several shades too dark, Ethan learned, and at least an inch too long. She snorted when she laughed, which was entirely too often, and she smelled of fruit salad and stale bread. The gap between her front teeth was a reservoir for food particles, and what didn’t get stuck in her teeth was often found trailing down her shirt front or dangling from the ends of her too-long hair. With a shiver of disgust, Oliver stuck the key onto the still-sticky Lucite block that Ethan was working on.

“No, Oliver! Once these things are in plastic, I can’t do them over.” Ethan scrabbled at the key, trying to unstick it, but it was already too late. “Shit.”

“No worries; it’s stuck on the corner, I’ll just put the ID plate over the top of it.”

And he did and it was perfect and no one would ever have guessed at the key underneath. After that, they made a sort of game of it – what else could they hide? Ethan became quite the master, figuring out ways to hide small objects in the opaque plastic, even without the covering plaque.

In a near corner of the basement, another artisan practiced his craft: making paste copies of real precious stones. Not all of the stones on display upstairs were fake. Generally a few were replaced with carefully marked replacements that could be tracked. That way if a piece were stolen – say, the consort crown of Mary of Modena – the police could find the thief when he tried to unload the spoils at a pawn shop. The originals were catalogued and stored, the whole process undertaken with the breathtaking nonchalance of a pirate safe on the high seas. Thousands of pounds’ worth of jewels were scooped into a schoolboy’s desk drawer at night, locked with a key nearly as flimsy as the one that now resided with an Icaricia icarioides missionensis in drawer 3367-AIIM-08.52-Lyca.

One night, Oliver wandered over to the jeweler’s workbench, hands in pockets, not quite whistling a jaunty, innocent tune, though Ethan could hear the echo of it. Ethan held his breath as Oliver pulled out the drawer – it wasn’t even locked! – leaned over the precious stones and plucked one from the tray like a feather from a dead goose. He replaced the drawer, stuck his hands back in his pockets and sauntered back to their workstation. He handed the stone to Ethan who buried it in Lucite. Oliver pressed the metal plate, made a note of the ID number and drawer number on a scrap of paper, tucked the paper under the desk blotter, and walked outside to have a smoke.

Once Oliver was gone, Ethan was finally able to breathe normally again. He was more terrified than he could ever remember being – not of the crime he’d just committed, but of the depth of careless viciousness he’d always suspected and finally glimpsed in his best friend. This whole scene had been conducted in complete silence, but at one point their eyes had met and the enormity of what they had begun passed between them.

“Back out now, and I’ll kill you,” Oliver’s eyes had said.

Ethan had never told a soul. Even when unexpected windfalls arrived in the family coffers, he never whispered a word to his wife. Three times, just three times in his life the secret had gotten so big inside him, he had to let a little out or risk choking on it. Three times he had gotten enormously drunk and called Mina and mumbled at her the secret she already knew. Well, once, actually. He didn’t know this, of course, but Mina and her daughter sounded an awful lot alike.


NuclearToast said...

Wow, cool. Next time I'm putting bugs in lucite, I'm going to have to try that glycerine trick! (Of course, I don't have any gems, but then I'm a purist.)

Ash said...

Yay! Two new chapters! I can't wait to read the next one and luckily I don't have to!