The fortune-telling automaton in the glass case waves its arms and nods its turbaned head. Its deep mechanical voice is saying something, and the arcade attendant's radio is still blaring, but Charles can't hear either of them over the ringing in his ears.
Shaw. Escaped from custody, with Emma Frost by his side. MacTaggert must have been crazy to think she'd ever get them to trial; what prison could hold them? How many officers had the CIA and the FBI lost already, trying to bring Shaw down? Far too many, though he only knows one by name: the one whose death sucked him into this nightmare.
He’d thought Moira MacTaggert was joking, the first time she asked him to spy on Shaw. The suggestion seemed as absurd as the fake stalactites hanging from the jazz club walls. He should have known there’d be a catch when she agreed so readily to help him with his magazine article, but he could never have imagined it would be this.
“Why me? I hardly know the man.”
She gave him a sceptical stare. “You’ve been a guest at his house.”
“Once,” Charles said. “A guest of a guest. There must have been two hundred people at that party. We barely spoke.”
This time there was no mistaking the contempt in her expression. “It doesn’t look that way.”
Charles stared queasily at the grainy zoom-lens photographs, flung down like a gauntlet on the tablecloth amongst the cocktail olives and highball glasses. No wonder she despised him if she thought those images told the truth. Anyone would think that he and Shaw were making out, Shaw’s hands on Charles’s shoulders, his mouth against Charles’s ear.
What the pictures didn’t show – couldn’t show – was what it felt like: the suffocating heat and scent of Shaw’s orchid house, the painful grip of his fingers leaving bruises that proved slow to fade, the lazy certainty of his voice announcing his plans for Charles, and the jarring force of his unspoken anger at Charles’s polite excuses…
“It’s a pity your photographer missed what happened next,” Charles said. “Which was me saying no thank you and going home with my date.”
Another half-truth: he’d left his disappointed escort in the hotel lobby, ordered heroic quantities of Scotch from room service and drunk himself into oblivion.
“Really, I can’t help you. I’m sorry. As I said, I hardly know him. And I doubt he’d want to see me again; I don’t think he was very pleased with me for turning him down.”
“You know what he is, right? And what he does? To your own kind?” She was openly angry now, but that wouldn’t do her any good.
“I’m afraid I do,” he said. “And that’s all the more reason not to get involved.”
He felt sorry for her, a little, but not enough to change his mind. He’d be crazy to put himself in Shaw’s way again, even assuming Shaw would let him get close.
“Let me get you another drink,” he said, pushing back his chair.
She didn’t say yes, but she didn’t say no. Easiest way out of a difficult situation: alcohol covers a multitude of sins.
Even with his shields up to mute the background noise of so many minds, he couldn’t mistake the loud appreciation of the man thinking Nice ass! as he moved towards the bar. In another kind of club, or even in this one if he wasn’t in the middle of a difficult interview with the CIA, he’d have stopped to investigate the source of that remark. Here and now, it was a minor nuisance, snagging his attention for a moment and no more.
Or that’s all it would have been, if the man thinking Nice ass! so loudly hadn’t turned out to be MacTaggert’s drop-dead gorgeous colleague, Erik Lehnsherr. If Erik hadn’t made it so clear he wanted Charles. If Charles hadn’t been so dizzy with lust at the sight of him that he could hardly breathe.
He’d made polite conversation with MacTaggert for the agonizing length of their second highball, the noise of his own feverish thoughts drowning out the jazz trio. Then he’d seen her to her car with renewed insincere apologies, gone home with Erik and fucked all night.
It had never occurred to him that she’d ask again, or that this time he wouldn’t be able to refuse.
Memories come crowding in, vivid and over-sharp like a 3D movie. MacTaggert's office, with the photographs from Shaw's party spread out on her desk, bearing false witness against him. He’d been able to shrug that off in the jazz club, even though the memories they conjured up made him feel sick; but now Erik Lehnsherr is staring at the photographs in furious disbelief, and everything has changed.
Charles wants to say It’s not what it looks like, but what would be the point? There he is, a flirtatious smile frozen on his face, and there is Sebastian Shaw, apparently murmuring sweet nothings in his ear.
“I told you, I turned him down,” he says, though he knows MacTaggert doesn’t believe him. She wouldn’t be using the photographs like that if she did.
From the look on Erik’s face it’s clear he doesn’t believe Charles either, though his The hell you did remains unspoken.
“Look,” MacTaggert says wearily, “we know now that Shaw’s got a telepath in his gang, a woman. Moss told us that much before –”
Charles gets a flash of what’s in her mind: a hospital room with a dying man swathed head to foot in bandages. Ray Fletcher Moss, Erik’s friend and shift partner, the latest in a line of agents killed trying to bring Shaw to justice. The only one so far to survive long enough to tell them anything. Erik’s still reeling from the news of his death, less than an hour ago.
MacTaggert clears her throat. “You could block her, couldn’t you? Shaw’s telepath.”
Probably. “Possibly,” Charles says. The net is closing around him.
“And you have an in with Shaw,” MacTaggert persists. “You’re the best chance we’ve got.”
He looks at Erik, but Erik goes on staring at the photographs with that same expression. The mixture of fury and disgust he’s giving off is so strong that Charles can hardly breathe. If Charles had said yes to MacTaggert the first time she asked, Moss might still be alive. If things had gone differently that night in the Bohemian Caverns, he and Charles would never have become lovers, might never have met except as witness and protection officer. Here he is with Charles’s marks still on him under his clothes, and there is that damned photograph on the desk, Shaw with his hands all over Charles, the way they will be again soon if Charles says yes this time. Erik hates him for it, hates himself more for having wanted this man, not knowing the cost, not knowing what he was…
For a crazy moment Charles wonders if MacTaggert knows about the two of them, if she’s using Erik’s reaction to the photographs to push him into doing what she wants. He scans her mind, but there’s no sign of that, no sense that she thinks Erik’s anger has any other cause than Moss’s death. She’s tearing them apart, and she doesn’t even know it. The urge to hit back at her with his powers, to hurt her as she’s hurting him, is so strong he can almost taste it.
Tell me not to do it, Erik!, he wants to yell. Tell me not to go. Tell me you won’t stand for it.
He’d wipe MacTaggert’s memory the next minute without a qualm if only Erik would look at him.
“The best chance we’ve got,” Erik says, flat and hard.
There’s nothing left to salvage here. Charles swallows the bitterness that fills his mouth.
“OK,” he says to MacTaggert. “I’ll do it.”
Shaw's casino, glaring with neon lights and buzzing with noise and crowds. Charles drinks, and flirts with the croupiers, and watches the gamblers crowded around the roulette wheel or the poker table or handing over wads of cash in exchange for piles of coloured chips. He plays a hand or two of Twenty-One, then strolls around the floor again, trying not to look as if he's waiting for the summons he knows is going to come sooner or later.
“This is our best chance of getting you into Shaw's house,” MacTaggert had said. “It'll look like a coincidence - most people have no idea he owns the place.”
She was right; it's a good location for a supposedly accidental encounter.
“Charles! This is an unexpected pleasure.”
Charles gives a slight start and turns round to greet him.
“Sebastian.” The name feels strange in his mouth but he can hardly say Mr Shaw after what passed between them last time.
“I had no idea you were a gambler,” Shaw says.
“It's one of my hobbies,” Charles says airily.
“If you think like that, you're not a real gambler.”
“Not at card games or roulette, perhaps,” Charles says. “But I enjoy a wager, if the stakes are high enough to be interesting.”
“Champagne,” Shaw says, beckoning a passing waiter.
“Yes sir, right away, sir,” the waiter gabbles, and is gone in the blink of an eye.
“This place is one of my hobbies,” Shaw says, affectedly casual.
Charles tries to look suitably surprised and impressed - but not too impressed for the image he's trying to project.
The waiter reappears, more quickly than Charles would have thought possible, and pours two glasses of champagne. A good vintage: Charles wonders if it's from Shaw's private store. It seems unlikely he'd be wasting wine of this quality on the casino's clientele, not if he wants the books to balance.
“I have a wager for you,” Shaw says. “If you have the nerve for it.”
Charles feels cold in the pit of his stomach. “Try me,” he says, with his best cheeky grin.
“I bet that if you come and stay in my house for a week, you won't want to leave,” Shaw says.
It's perfect; it's horrific. Charles swallows hard.
“What do I get if you lose?”
“Whatever you like,” Shaw says. It's obvious he thinks it's irrelevant, that he's bound to win anyway.
“The keys to your cellar, then,” Charles says lightly, trying hard not to think of Bluebeard. “This champagne really is very good. And what do you get if you win?”
“The pleasure of your company, of course,” Shaw says, and raises his glass. “You could throw in your PR services if you're feeling modest, but it's really not necessary.”
“Splendid,” Charles says. His mouth is dry. “When would you like to begin?”
The shady courtyard of Shaw's house, the day of his arrival. Shaw welcomes him and introduces his assistant, Emma Frost, languid and bored in white linen. A trickle of sweat runs down Charles’s spine. He tells himself it’s just the heat, the New Orleans spring that feels like summer already. The air is heavy with the smell of wisteria, moss and damp.
“You turned me down the first time we met,” Shaw says. He sounds as if it still surprises him. Maybe it does. There must be plenty of young men who want the kind of life he can provide.
“I was with someone else, if you recall,” Charles says, mock-protesting.
“Hardly,” Shaw says reprovingly. “A passing acquaintance, at best.”
He would have checked up on that; of course he would. This fucking conversation is like walking on eggshells.
“Blame my mother,” Charles jokes. “She raised me to believe it’s the height of bad manners to ditch your escort for another beau.”
Shaw’s lip curls. “Etiquette is for debutantes,” he says. “The only thing that matters is to know what you want, and take it.”
Charles forces a smile. “That's all very well, but you can’t always get what you want.”
“Oh, I can,” Shaw says, with a grin that makes Charles feel cold inside. “I’m sure you can too. I doubt you ever have to settle for second best.”
Charles doesn’t usually have any trouble looking smug, or so various people have told him over the years. Somehow it’s harder to do on purpose.
“Life has been good to me,” he admits. It sounds suitably complacent; once upon a time he’d have said it was true.
“So what made you change your mind?” Shaw’s gaze seems to pierce through to his bones.
Charles takes a deep breath. “I’m ready to try something new,” he says.
“Well,” Shaw says, “I think we can promise you that. Emma, honey, why don’t you fix us all a drink?”
Emma Frost shoots him a look of pure dislike, but does as she's told.
Charles sips at his mint julep; it’s sweeter than he likes it, but with a bitter note underneath the sugar. The coolness of crushed ice is irresistible, though; even in the shade of the courtyard, the late afternoon is so hot and humid that he can scarcely breathe.
“The wonders of chemistry,” Shaw says, raising his frosted silver tumbler. His smile is slow and relishing; it makes him look older.
He forces himself to mirror Shaw’s lazy smile, though his head already aches from trying to make sure that Frost can’t pick up his thoughts. She’s as powerful a telepath as he is, and with none of his inhibiting scruples. He mustn’t drink too much, however strong the temptation. Dutch courage and drowning his sorrows are equally inadvisable if he’s going to get the evidence he came here for.
Shaw would know all about the wonders of chemistry: so much of his empire in New Orleans and beyond is built on drugs. Marijuana, heroin, cocaine – and there are rumours, not yet substantiated, of an unlicensed suppressant that enables mutants to pass for baseline human.
“Emma makes a great cocktail,” Shaw says. “You must try her White Russian – it’s a work of art.”
“I’ll look forward to it,” Charles says politely.
“The pleasures of anticipation,” Shaw says. He’s so pleased with himself that he’s almost purring. “But I don’t like to wait too long for anything.”
Charles doesn’t need to read his mind to know he’s thinking I’ve waited long enough for you.
Shaw drains his tumbler and sets it down. “You’ll excuse us, Emma. Charles and I have an appointment to keep.”
Charles knocks back the rest of his own drink – the dregs are so bitter he almost chokes – and pulls himself up out of the wicker armchair. Every step feels heavier than the last as he follows Sebastian into the house and up the broad marble staircase.
“... do not on any account approach these dangerous mutants, but call 703-482-0623,” the radio announcer says.
And a lot of good that is, Charles thinks bitterly. By the time Shaw and Emma got close enough for anyone to recognize them, that person would be as good as dead. He knows what happened to the telepath before Emma.
I’m always looking for perfection, Shaw had said, watching the smoke-rings from his post-coital cigar drift in the breeze from the ceiling fan. But people so seldom live up to expectation. The mental image that went with the words, a long narrow hole in the ground with a sheet-wrapped bundle at the bottom of it, had been as clear to Charles as if the grave lay in the middle of the bedroom floor.
The fortune-telling machine buzzes and spits out a black and yellow card with a fancy border. Charles puts his hand out automatically to take it, and stares down at the printed message:
A dear one will return from a long trip and your whole life will be different.
“And with that, we return you to our scheduled programming,” the announcer says perkily, and the radio bursts into song:
Ain't no mountain high enough,
Ain't no valley low enough,
Ain't no river wide enough
To keep me from getting to you...