From the author: A lovely dinner with a dangerous dessert, and the aftermath of such endeavors. This is a genre bending mix of weird and some sci-fi elements with a warning for gore.
Zoe smiled at the man across the table from her, watching the way he looked over her throat and down, along the neckline of her dress. She had worn a fake diamond necklace, shiny and bright, just to nestle between her breasts and give him the excuse to keep glancing down.
It was so predictable, but it always worked. Some invitations just didn’t get passed up.
She was making the most of what she had – her russet brown skin glowed in the candlelight and she'd carefully done the kohl around her eyes to bring out the flecks of gold in her hazel. The jewellery was all fake, of course, but the marks never looked close enough to tell. It just sparkled as bright as her.
She’d become good at playing this particular trap. It was thoroughly boring, goodness he could talk, but she could fake interest.
"So I'm on the phone with this guy, and he's riding my ass about getting the deal closed but why should I help him? He's being a dick and my clients could walk either way, it's not like it'll hurt them if they leave him in the dust." He laughed, sliding a hand onto her knee as he went on. "But I'm probably boring you to death, aren't I, darling?"
"Of course not, Zachariah, I love to hear someone enjoying themselves," she said, batting her lashes at him as he continued to creep his hand up.
Zacahriah Hamilton was many things, a dealer in secrets and an unrepentant hedonist joint top of the list. He drank Zoe in like she was another delight and she let him, toying with the chain of her necklace so the stone caught the light.
"It was an excellent bout of ball twisting, the little twerp deserved it," Zachariah agreed. "But I've done nothing but talk all evening. We haven't even had dessert yet and I've barrelled through my whole week."
"We could always take dessert back to your room," she said, smiling on the shy side of indulgent.
"I didn't know you were fond of room service."
"I'm fond of all sorts of services. And I know you're just dying to see if the rest of my thigh is as soft as that little spot." His hand paused, the thumb he’d been using to massage her inner knee hovering just above the skin.
"You're such a minx." He laughed, snagging the waiter as they went past. "A bottle of champagne and some strawberries for my room."
The waiter nodded and left, Zachariah's eyes back on the plush swell of Zoe's lips, the arc of her neck as she looked at him over the candle flame. He wasn't an ugly man, square jawed like an old Broadway hero and wearing his late thirties well. He had a farmer’s tan that had been paid for rather than earned, but it suited him.
Zoe could see why he'd been targeted. She wasn't sure if it would shake his confidence or if he'd get over it like he seemed to get over his over scandals, but that wasn't her concern.
They wandered up to his room, half touches and stolen glances in the lift and along the corridor. He ghosted his hand up her back as she entered the room and she giggled, glancing over her shoulder at him. She undid the pins in her hair, letting it bounce down her back as she perched on the edge of his bed. She crossed one knee over the other and watched him, leaning back a little to show the smooth lines of the dress.
"I do like your hair," Zachariah said, touching the tips of it as he wandered past the bed and over to the waiting cart. He was in a lovely suite, care of the job, and he evidently enjoyed making the most of his expenses.
"Thank you." She smiled, taking the offered glass. It was dry and fizzy enough to tickle her nose but she sipped it anyway.
"I do have to ask though, are you sure you want to do this?"
"What makes you ask that?"
"Much as I’m enjoying your company, and you are delectable in that dress, you haven't known me very long."
"I'm sure you’ve met plenty of women that haven't known you very long and are still interested in you." She arched a brow, holding his eye as she took another sip. His eyes tracked over her throat.
"I don't hurt for company, but usually that company is a little less perceptive."
"You mean all the silly girls try to catch your eye?"
"Something like that." He laughed, sitting next to her on the bed and placing the bottle down between their feet. "You're not a silly girl."
"I'm certainly a safe age, but then you knew that."
"So why is an intelligent woman picking up a rumpled businessman?"
"Is that what you are? I mean the tan line from your ring is a bit of a giveaway, but other than that you look perfectly presentable."
He had the good grace to look sheepish, fingering the paler skin on his left hand before glancing back to her.
"And you're happy with dinner and drinks?" he licked his lips as he said it.
"Are you trying to ask if I'm an escort, Zachariah?" She laughed, uncrossing her legs to cross them again, letting the thigh closest to him slip bare and press against his own.
"I suppose I might have been." He hummed, running his hand over her arm. "Do you think I'm awfully silly?"
"I think it's a shame you're convinced that only an escort would like to have dinner with you."
"It seems too good to be true."
"So suspicious of good fortune, should I be worried? Are you terribly unlucky?"
"Not at all. Let me take care of you, baby." Dear god that line had to be older than he was.
She leant into him as he fumbled at her, one hand going to her cheek as the other grabbed her covered thigh, gripping her like a toddler with a swimming float. She twisted on the bed, one hand grazing along his arm and down to his knee, then further to grab the bottle.
Smacking him over the head with it in one smooth motion she winced at the thick crunch it made. She’d never liked that sound. He went down onto the bed with an extended groan, farting unceremoniously as he stilled. At least he’d been holding it in.
She got up, chugging the expensive fizz as she scoped the room. There was a limited window and she had to make the scene look as bad as possible, the sensationalism necessary for impact.
She yanked at her hair as she continued to gulp down the wine, grabbing fistfuls from the nape of her neck and tugging it back and forth. Setting down the bottle she knocked the strawberries out of their bowl, snagging a few to pop in her mouth before stamping on some. They were perfect, sweet and cool, flavour exploding on her tongue.
Straddling over Zachariah she crawled over the covers to the pillows. She mussed them up, planting her head briefly on one, then kicked the covers down to present movement. Standing, she kicked over the cart; plucking up one of the knives from the spilled silverware and holding it up. It was shiny and sharp, designed for slicing up meat. Perfect.
Her necklace was pulled off, clasp breaking and her shiny stone bouncing off along the carpet. She hopped onto the bed again, leaning in to wrap the knife handle in Zachariahs’ fingers before shuffling back and lying down. She had to get the angle just right for this part.
She started at her throat, tracing the blade along her skin before digging it hard into one side, gasping at the heat of her blood. It never hurt anymore, that wasn’t the problem, but that first rush was always disquieting. It splattered out, soaking into the heavy cotton sheets and over Zachariah. Dark and rich as the steak he’d had at dinner, it pooled against the disrupted covers almost artistically.
She went to her chest next, slicing her dress open before stabbing hard, over and over. It stung when she snagged a rib - there was something jarring about that even now - but she persevered, stopping around the thirty mark. That should look enough like overkill.
Sighing, and almost laughing when it made blood burble up over her skin like the bubbles in the champagne she flopped down on the bed, arms going ragdoll down at her sides. It would take a few seconds for him to wake up and she needed to go into the right headspace, void and absent, so it was convincing. The journey was never what she’d call nice, but then what type of death was? She focused instead of the parts of it she liked: the cold chill like the stars at night, the comforting darkness of the space behind her eyes. She heard him begin to rouse just as she was leaving, the broken sob like a stone dropping into the still pool of her peace.
Sydney was opening the bag up as she came round – a sensation like swimming through tar but without the promise of support. It left her crabby when this all started, untethered and upset. Now it was like the hangover from a nap: her mind groggy but bearable.
“You had fun then?” Sydney asked with a crooked grin, braids hugging close to her small skull. She was blue haired this time – an electric cyan that highlighted the veins under her sour cream skin – and bundled up against the chill of the room.
“You said messy.”
“He threw up, you know. We charged extra for that.”
“I expected Zachariah to have a stronger stomach,” Zoe said with a laugh, flexing her largest joints first before starting to crack the others back into life. “Was he very upset?”
“And we’re getting how much?”
“Full payment, he called for clean up.”
“I thought he might go to the police.”
“Too rich for that, darlin’,” Sydney said, passing Zoe leggings and a jumper. “How’s the healing?”
Zoe scrambled out of the bag, stripping the dress off to check herself over. Her neck was whole again, she could feel the new skin tightness tugging a little with each movement.
“Good,” she said, ghosting fingers over her collar bone, breasts, ribs. A couple of scabs still sat there, clinging on like beetles, but they would shed. She slipped the leggings on then the jumper, stretching like a cat as it settled against her.
“I was worried, when they told me how much blood was gone.”
“Told you, I don’t think blood matters. Central cavity trauma evidently doesn’t.” She tapped her chest for emphasis. “And I was strung up for that one back in Austin, so I don’t think lack of oxygen does it either.” Her medical knowledge had been restricted to the living only, previously, but her mind automatically kept a track of these things.
“We should experiment in a safe environment, rather than on the job,” Sydney said, clicking her tongue, “But it was effective. He called it in within ten minutes, paid the crew extra on top of the arrangement fee. And stayed in the hotel. I think he switched rooms though.”
“Kinda glad to hear that, honestly. The idea of him jacking off sadly in the bed I died on is a bit… eesh.”
“Says you, dead girl.” Sydney gave one of her wicked cackles, the sound shaking from her throat like dice in a cup. “Come on, let’s bounce.”
They left the containment room together, hand in hand as much as they could for their height difference. That was probably the part that rankled with Zoe most about Sydney’s version of the change. They’d been near the same height and now she was shorter - almost a full foot lower down - and skeletal as an anorexia patient. Zoe had seen them in her old job, painfully thin ghosts wandering around the wards like bones hiding in wrapping paper skin. She’d never been good at handling them.
She made the effort for Sydney.
It wasn’t like either of them had a choice in this since they’d been caught up in the shitstorm of Simon Greenford’s mental break. A bounty of treasures, he’d called it, when they’d been abducted from dinner and given their ‘gifts’ via his experiments.
He thought they’d be heroes, them and the others. Instead they wound up working for this army spin off, sent out on bitter honey traps and the sticky side of espionage.
“What you thinkin’?” Sydney asked, looking up to Zoe. She realised she’d been gripping Sydney’s small hand too hard, crushing the spindly fingers.
“Wondering what the next job will be.”
“Liar,” Sydney said with a wink, sticking her little grey tongue out, “There’ll be one soon. There’s others they want targeted.”
“Will the next one deserve it?”
“Zacharia did, no reason to think this one won’t. Maybe they’ll send me out next time.”
“You don’t come back from the dead.” Zoe laughed, tugging her closer to dip a kiss to the top of her head.
“We haven’t checked. We only found out you were the pop-up champion after the shooting accident.”
“You have all the other stuff. I don’t even look different.”
“True, you’re just real hard to kill.” Sydney rolled her eyes at her, red irises tracking round like a laser point.
“I like it that way,” Sydney said, tugging her towards their room with that old wicked grin. “Come on, let me give you a proper check over.”