The kitchen was colder than the rest of the house, the marble counters clear from use. The only hint of life was a plate in the sink from a hastily heated dinner-breakfast. Their parents were both still in New York, and Maddy wasn’t back until next Friday.
The fridge was empty, so Javier went straight for the tall freezer in the corner. It felt good to do something with his hands; the movements rinsing out the bitter aftertaste that was Giulia’s unease. She had never been comfortable with Javier’s Empathy, and Javier still wasn’t sure if it was because of the eight years between them, or whether she was wary of all empaths. Her discomfort never felt any easier to bear.
Javier retrieved a tall glass from the cabinet and dumped in a handful of frozen raspberries and strawberries into the blender. He dissolved some brown sugar in a bowl, and turned on the coffee machine while he looked for the lid to the mixer.
There came a thump from upstairs.
Javier glanced at the ceiling, then pointedly switched on the blender. It screamed to life, drowning out the sound of arguing voices. He slotted a coffee cup into place. By the time the fruit had been turned into liquid, the coffee was ready. He fetched a glass straw, poured the smoothie, and popped a frozen strawberry into his mouth.
He re-entered the bedroom in time to hear Corinna say:
“I wanted to make the Monday news cycle! They’ll run it all week now. You’re welcome.”
“So you did have something to do with it,” said Guilia.
Corinna was still sitting against her pillows, but she was dragging a long index finger lazily down the screen of Giulia’s tablet.
“Sorry, I meant I aspired to make the Monday news cycle.”
“There’s already talk of an audit,” hissed Giula, pacing the space at the foot of the bed, “to figure out how long this theft has been going on and why Arden Pharmaceutical has failed to notice tens of thousands of pounds worth of CM15 walking out the backdoor every week!”
“It was not every week,” said Corinna, who never learned to back down strategically or simply didn’t care how high Giulia’s blood pressure went, “anyway we have so many back doors, can’t possibly keep track of—”
“Can you take this seriously for one second, please? Public consultation for the tender has just opened, how could this possibly be advantageous?”
Javier wordlessly held out the coffee to her. Giulia blinked at him, and there was a flash of guilt across her face as well as her emotions.
“You’re welcome,” said Javier, walking over to the bed and passing the smoothie to Corinna.
“Why is there a straw?”
“Because you’re an invalid,” he replied, “who should be resting.”
“I want a ham and cheese croissant,” said his twin.
“See, there’s nothing wrong with her.”
“Stop fighting,” said Javier, crossing his arms, “what happened last night?”
“I got shot in the chest, not the stomach,” Corinna said, sulkily, “I can eat a croissant.”
“No one is getting croissants until you tell me exactly what happened,” said Giulia.
Corinna gave them a wide eyed look of innocence that fooled absolutely no one in the room. She held Giulia’s gaze and took a slow inhale of her drink through the straw.
“I’d have thought you would like the option of plausible deniability, sister dear.”
Giulia snatched the tablet back.
“Glass Heist: Arden employee found dead in suspected Glass overdose,” she read, “…identified as Timothy Hersch, was found dead at the scene with at least thirty retail units of the water purifier CM15 in the back of an auto-cab…”
It was the same article from The Sentinel that she had texted Javier at nine that morning.
“…raises serious questions as to the security measures in place,” Giulia continued, “...further, Mr Hersch appears to have participated in the recent protests that took place against proposed amendments to the Water Act. These amendments are still being debated in the Commons, and if passed, would pause the original phase-out of subsidies to big pharma for CM15 production in the UK, and the Sixty-Fourthers have been vocal in—”
“Wow,” said Corinna sarcastically, throwing out her hand, “turns out the Sixty-Fourthers aren’t just concerned about water cost: they want to get high. Please tell me you’ve sent that to PR already.”
Giulia was starting to look a little crazed around the eyes, lips thin with incredulity. The weight of her stress was suffocating, and Javier shot Corinna a warning glare, tugging pointedly at his cuffs. Corinna tilted her head; an apology.
“Pass me my tablet, Jav?”
Javier obliged. He took the opportunity to sit himself next to the window, as far away from his older sister as possible.
“This is just the excuse they need,” said Giulia, “to breathe down our necks; start issuing notices for everything under the goddamn sun.”
“But now the media will stop beating on the big bad pharma narrative!” Corinna was almost shouting, “poor little activist was actually a drug dealer. That should muddy the public debate long enough for the bill to pass.”
“That’s not what the headlines are—”
Corinna turned her tablet around, holding it up with both hands.
“So maybe The Sentinel wasn’t quite the right pitch—”
“Wait,” Javier interrupted, “hold on, did you leak this?”
Corinna ignored him, like a cat who had been caught gutting a bird and could care less.
“…the tabloids and online pundits have the right idea. See, ‘The secret truth to Right To Life stash-houses’; ‘ANTI CM15 PROTESTOR FOUND DEAD FROM OD’ —great stuff. I just thought you’d be happier with a more reputable bastion of the sixty-fourth estate. Heh.”
“And was getting shot part of the plan?” said Giulia.
“I am a glass half full kind of girl,” said Corinna, batting her eyelashes.
“Because congrats, you’ve also made the news!”
“…get it? Glass half—”
“What?” Javier demanded pulling out his phone; panic cold on his skin, “where?”
“Not by name, thank god,” said Giulia, “the article talks about a possible ‘altercation’ outside the pharmacy. That someone got shot… they think Hersch had something to do with it.”
“Guys, I made a pun.”
Javier scrolled back through Giulia’s text messages and pulled up The Sentinel article link, thumbing down quickly.
“How did they know the shooting victim was a female fire starter—”
“Two puns, actually.”
“The police already know it’s Rina,” said Giulia flatly, “they were a pain to get rid of and I want to get our story straight before they come back.”
Corinna wrinkled her nose and mouth, like she was trying expressions on for size. She eventually settled on ‘annoyed but abashed’. Javier knew for a fact she practiced in the mirror.
“Well…” she said, dragging the word out, “could work in our favour if my name got in the press. The cops haven’t done a press conference yet. Might be good to do it on our terms.”
Giulia collapsed into the nearest chair.
“You had better have a watertight reason for why you were down there in the dead of night—”
Corinna waved a hand.
“Relax,” she said, “think about it. If people think the Sixty-Fourthers are running around shooting random people, that isn’t going to look good for their cause, is it? Kinda ruins the whole pacifist image.”
“You’re hardly random,” said Javier, “they’re angry at the company…which shares your name.”
“Our names,” said Giulia, raising both eyebrows.
“Oh please, I’m just the second daughter who sometimes sits in on investor meetings because: nepotism,” said Corinna, “and I’m beautiful. Who do you think the media will side with?”
“Do you really think it was an activist?” asked Javier, pressing his fingers to the bridge of his nose.
There was a headache building between his eyes; ragged like a frayed cuff. Corinna shrugged, taking another sip of her smoothie.
“Dunno yet,” she said, “maybe.”
“Let’s not give the media any more ammunition until we figure out what’s going on,” said Giulia.
“Stop looking a gift horse in the mouth. No one will even care about some boring inventory audit if they found out I got shot by hooligans over tax breaks.”
Giulia leaned forwards in her chair, mouth severe.
“I mean it Corinna. Do not talk to the press.”
Corinna held Giulia’s gaze and wrapped her lips around her straw. The glass was almost empty, and the air made an obnoxiously loud wet rattle-echo as she chased the last of the smoothie at the bottom. Five seconds passed.
“Everyone loves a good scandal,” said Corinna.
There was a dramatic swell of aggravation, and Javier winced audibly. Both his sisters turned to look at him.
“Poor Jav-Jav needs to sleep,” said Corinna, patting the duvet next to her.
Javier gave her a flat stare and remained where he was. Corrina stuck out her bottom lip. She cast Giulia a slanted look behind the sharp edge of her hair; a partial reflection in the back of a knife.
“I think your phone is buzzing,” she said.
Giulia glared at her but got to her feet, stuffing the tablet back inside its folio sleeve. She straightened her shirt and dusted off her suit pants, sweeping her handbag off the chair with one wrist.
She nodded at Javier.
“I have to go back to the office. You two stay out of trouble, and for God’s sake don’t let her talk to the press. I’m serious.”
Javier crossed his ankles.
“You always are.”
Giulia drained the rest of her coffee in one go, dropping it onto the bedside table before sweeping out of the bedroom. She left behind only a fresh lipstick stain on the ceramic.
Javier breathed out quietly.
“Well, that was a waste of time,” said Corinna immediately.
“I heard that!”
Javier slapped a hand to his face.
Upper Chelsea, Level Thirty-Second.
Corinna insisted on taking one of their mother’s cars instead of the two-person flier that Javier had driven the night before.
“I can’t believe you flew in that thing after I got shot,” she said derisively from the passenger seat, bundled up in Javier’s wool coat and a pair of oversized sunglasses.
It was not a long flight from the house to the apartment they shared on the thirty-third, but every passing vehicle made Javier’s anxiety vibrate behind his teeth, and he felt his heart jolt everytime a flier pulled up close in the rear view cameras.
Just below them, New Hyde Park was an island of green in a sea of grey.
“Someone might have played with it,” Corinna continued, “if I were them, I would have planted a bomb while you were inside St Ophie’s. Then boom. One less Arden in the world—”
“Yes, thank you,” said Javier testily, pulling the flier carefully into the parking entrance that ran below their apartment.
“…I guess if you’re still here, it’s all fine,” said Corinna, brushing his cheek with the back of her knuckles, “but still. Better safe.”
Javier said nothing.
The lights in the short tunnel glowed blue as the wing of the vehicle retracted into the base of the car, and the chassis rocked gently as the wheels touched the concrete floor. Living in the penthouse meant they had a separate parking bay on the east side of the building, from which a small dedicated elevator ran all the way to the top floor. Javier parked the flier in the empty space closest to the lifts. There were three other cars and two motorbikes parked in the garage, silhouettes softened by dark covers.
Beside him, Corinna gave a sigh of relief, taking off her glasses in the low light.
Javier cut the engine.
The silence inside the car was skin-close, warm against his neck. It was nothing like the terror with which he had driven out of there last night; the absence of his sister like an anvil on his chest the whole way down. Now that Rina was back, it was like she had never left at all: except the aftertaste that lingered; the acute possibility of loss.
Corinna reached for Javier’s hand, still resting on the gearstick, covering it with her palm. She felt as calm as she always did; an unyielding mirror.
“It’ll take more to get rid of me,” she murmured.
Corinna had never needed Javier to speak to know what he was afraid to say. He took a deep breath, staring through the windshield. The display beside the wheel glowed still: Javier could see that the last thing played in this car had been Puccini. It all felt very surreal.
“I was really scared, Rina.”
Javier breathed out, having lost his conviction but found a smile. It would have to do for now.
“You sure you’re feeling alright?” he asked, opening his car door.
“Well, I’m starving.”
“I suppose that’s something we can fix. Unlike the mess you got Giulia in.”
The door to the small lobby whooshed back as the scanners passed over them with a pleasant chime. There were no buttons for the lift; and there was nothing except the two of them and their reflections in the dark grey mirrors lining the interior. Javier had turned off the voice for the automatic AI assistant in the apartment when they first moved in: he found it disconcerting to be talked back to by something that had no emotional presence.
“Finally,” said Corinna, throwing her tablet onto the nearest chair as they stepped through the front door, “it’s so good to be home, ugh! Can you make me an espresso martini?”
She kicked off her shoes, striding off through the living room towards her bedroom.
“No, I cannot,” Javier called after her.
He made a face, nudging her heels with his toe until they were lined up against the wall. The blinds were still down from last night, and Jav tapped the wall controls to lift them. The afternoon sun streamed in, glossing the marble and reflecting off the aquarium walls. It filtered through the trees in the solarium, and it was hard to believe only half a day had passed. His tablet was still lying on the couch where he had left it next to an oversized coffee table book of photographs, opened to Manon.
Corinna reappeared, voice first, followed by her familiar poker face.
“—yes I’m alive, obviously. Get over here, we need to talk.”
Javier raised his eyebrows and Corinna mouthed Peter. Javier scowled and made for the kitchen. Corinna followed, still talking on the phone.
“Yes, now. Are you stupid? Hurry up because I want to take a bath and sleep for at least fourteen hours.”
Javier opened the fridge and triumphantly located a container of leftover salmon bake. He popped off the lid, replacing it with a plate for the microwave.
Corinna pokes him in shoulder, making jabbing motions at the dish and herself.
“Nope, I’m eating this,” said Javier, “find something else.”
Corinna narrowed her eyes at him. The microwave dinged and Javier dove for it.
“…oh, and can you pick up some ham and cheese croissants on the way here? At least five, I’m starving and Javier’s being a little bitch.”
“There’s other stuff in the fridge!” Javier protested, “why do you always want what I’m actively eating?”
The food steamed between them, smelling heavenly. Javier burned his tongue on the first bite with absolutely no regrets, perching himself on the breakfast stool so he could inhale properly.
“What do you mean risk? Did someone take your balls last night? Nothing is gonna happen in a bakery, everyone is too busy having breakfast — non, non, c’est une boulangerie! Call yourself a professional? Get me my croissants!”
There was a rattle from his left and Javier looked up in time to see Corinna approaching with a fork. He quickly took the biggest mouthful he could manage.
Corinna stabbed her fork into the dish, groaning.
“So good,” she said, around potatoes and fish, “order more of this.”
“Is Peter really bringing croissants?” asked Javier hopefully.
“If he wants to live,” replies Corinna, using her fork to pick out all the salmon bits.
Javier sighed, pushing the dish towards her.
“Fine, but I want two of them.”
Corinna discarded a piece of broccoli.
“You can have one,” she said, scraping her fork clean between her teeth and pointing it at him.
“I’ve been worried sick!”
Corinna retrieved the broccoli on second thoughts. She chewed, left cheek bulging like a chipmunk.
“Fine. Two. But only because I love you.”
Javier’s ribs ached with the squeeze of his lungs.
“When is Peter coming around then?”
“Soon,” said Corinna, “but enough time for you to take a shower and make me that espresso martini after.”
“You’re meant to rest,” said Javier, exasperated, “I’ll make you a non-caffeinated martini.”
“Three olives,” said Corinna, smirking, and Javier realised too late that she had never wanted anything else in the first place.
© Frances Wren 2019, all rights reserved.
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