Last time Vivienne was shown things by Ignatius Von Brandt that she could neither understand nor explain. In the heat of the night she extricates herself from his triangular penthouse and gets back to work. The sceptic in her tries to reason away what she’s seen, but there’s another part of her that’s warming to his secrets.
Somewhere – in the building foyer, in the panicked walk along Fleet Street, on the tube train filled with the shit-workers, the crazed and the drunk, in the taxi home from her suburban station – she calmed down and tried to assess the evening more logically. She reckoned the dark liquor must have contained some mild hallucinogen as well as a generous slug of alcohol – diphenhydramine, perhaps, or even mushrooms. Even nutmeg concentrate might do the job.
It didn’t make sleep any easier. She pulled the blanket up to her nose like armour and stared at the ceiling, thinking about what had happened. Humiliated at being suckered in by Ignatius’s routine, her body shuddered and she curled herself into a ball. It obviously hadn’t been his skin – it was a piece of material, a prop hidden up his sleeve. She scolded herself for being taken in by it so easily. That must be how those people operate: intimidate and blind the little people with pseudo science to elevate their own sense of mystique. And she – a journalist, a science journalist – had fallen for it. She just knew that somewhere Sir Karl Popper would be turning in his grave. She rolled onto her side and closed her eyes, but all she could see behind her eyelids was Ignatius’s face in the flames, wrapping himself around her and pressing his hot lips onto her wet mouth, the both of them wrapped in the hiss of steam. Rolling onto her other side only brought the image of the wriggling flap of skin, and she scolded herself for being such a bloody girl over the whole thing. She’d dealt with far scarier people than this Ignatius charlatan in the past. Easier said than done, though. Tomorrow she’d have to see her editor, and she’d written sod all.
The morning was easier than she predicted, and the events of the night before seemed more pleasingly distant, though the lack of column inches weighed heavy on her, much more so than Ignatius, and remained over her all the way to the office. She tried to fill in some of the gaps on the commute using her phone.
Rather than leave the empty column to fester, Viv walked briskly over to Emma Bartlett, the Chronicle’s Lifestyle editor. Emma finished typing up an email before looking up at Viv over her fashionable reading spectacles and under a stylish red bob.
“How was last night? I suspect it was a bit of an education for you,” Emma smiled, revealing a fetching gap-tothed mouth.
Viv half-smiled, but suspected it appeared as more of a grimace. “You could say that.”
“What have you got?”
“Oh, bits and pieces.” Mainly cobbled together from social media updates on the train. Time to change the direction. “But I think there’s something there worth pursuing a bit more. There’s a story in there.”
Emma stared at her incredulously. “Viv, sweetie, I appreciate you filling in, but this isn’t science. Really. There are no stories in Lifestyle. There are glimpses, snapshots, vignettes. A vicarious thrill for the rats on the tube. A fancy face with nothing going on behind it. If you want to do more columns, you’d better realize that sooner rather than later.”
“People don’t want stories from Lifestyle. They want to peer through the keyhole. Don’t give it all away by writing bloody stories about it, darling.” Emma turned back to her computer and started to tap.
“Didn’t you hear what I said? There are no stories. What are you covering this week?”
“The Government’s making an announcement on funding for intelligent systems in-”
“Sounds great. There’s a fashion launch in Mayfair tomorrow night.” Emma thrust a print out of two columns of names under Viv’s nose. “Those are the A-listers; those are the B-listers. I’ll email you the address and get you on the guest list. Write something up.” Emma swung her chair round to look her up and down. She suspected the appraisal wouldn’t be complimentary. “Do you really want to do this column, Viv, darling?”
“I want to interview Anton Petrowski.”
Emma rolled her eyes. “Darling, he’s a whale. Nobody wants to read about whales. If you want to write about him, try to find out who he’s banging. And besides, he doesn’t do interviews.”
Time to go nuclear. “I think I can get an interview with him. I think I can get close to him.”
Emma furrowed her brows. “Oh, Vivienne,” she smirked, “What did you get up to last night? No, don’t tell me. Oh, I love it! You science types are all such dark horses, aren’t you? Look, sweetie, if you believe you can get an interview then by all means go for it. I won’t expect anything, because lots of people in the know have been trying for years. Send me your copy.”
“Uh, Emma, have you ever met a man called Ignatius Von Brandt?”
Emma stuck out a bottom lip. “Yes, I’ve seen him before. But I’ve no interest in him. He’s a hanger-on so far as I can see. I spoke to him once. I didn’t think there was anything new there.”
Viv tried not to let the oddness of that comment get to her. Unless it’s a lie.
Emma spun around and took a phone call that started, inexplicably, with that mwa-mwa kissing sound. As Viv turned, it wasn’t the whale Petrowski on her mind. It was Ignatius Von Brandt. She wanted to put him in his place.
At lunchtime she took the tube over to the City and walked to Ignatius’s apartment building. The lobby was large, spacious and tiled with mirrors, tall blooming potted plants and warm light. The concierge, a well dressed middle-aged man, looked up at her from his seat behind a large, marble desk and smiled graciously upon her approach.
“Good afternoon, madam,” he said.
“Hello there. I wonder is Ignatius Von Brandt in today?”
The man creased his brows ever so slightly. “I’m sorry, which company does he work at?”
She stopped. “Oh, I’m not sure, but I don’t think he works here. He owns the penthouse on the top floor.”
“Um, the penthouse isn’t owned by an individual, madam. It’s owned by a private company. But people rent it out.”
Viv’s lips tensed at the revelation. So he is a bloody fraud. She clenched her fists and held back the need to vent her frustration at the poor concierge.
“Do you know who’s renting the penthouse at the moment, or who had it last night?”
“I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to divulge that. They’re usually quite private guests.”
“Was it Mr Von Brandt?”
The man paused, just enough hesitation to give the game away, before responding rather more curtly. “I can’t tell you, madam.”
“Would you relay a message to whoever is renting the penthouse, please? Just a simple message. Tell them Vivienne apologises profusely for last night, and wants to know more. If they want to meet, I’ll be here,” she fished out the note Emma had given her and placed it on the reception desk, “tomorrow night, at 9pm. Tell them it’ll be worth their while.”
Insectoid models strutted along a makeshift runway under burning halogen lamps and throbbing dance music, which prevented Viv from getting too close. She had no clue about what made the clothes so special, but she was in private awe at the girls’ – and boys’ – ability to walk so stridently under such heat and noise without breaking the slightest bead of sweat. It might not have been the most noble of professions to dedicate one’s life towards, but it had a certain hollow impressiveness to it. After the black liquor, Viv decided to stick to her trusty water-bottle this evening. This time she did her best to hobnob and take notes and pictures. Emma – and Eithné – knew a lot of people, and mentioning them opened quite a few conversations. True, the conversations were meaningless but convivial enough, and soon Viv had a phone full of notes, snapshots, descriptions and names. More than enough for an airy article. It probably helped that she’d made more effort too. She’d splashed on the fake tan, treated herself to a cut and blow-dry, and had borrowed an expensive pair of heels – though she couldn’t tell how expensive, and dared not guess – from a colleague.
She was in light conversation with an outré twentysomething Armenian designer named Magdaleña, when a voice whispered in her ear.
“You look positively at home tonight.”
“So you got the message, then?” said Viv, not giving Ignatius the pleasure of eye-contact.
Ignatius flickered round to her front, light on his feet, taking a place next to the startled Magdaleña. His shirt looked identical in pattern and style to the one he’d had on the previous night, but this time the shirt was yellow, the triangles were orange, and the cuffs and collar were red. Otherwise he looked no different. He looked confused.
No, she remembered, he’s feigning confusion. It’s all an act.
“I received no message, Vivienne. On my word.”
“Your word!” she spluttered with a laugh. “Magdaleña, allow me to introduce Ignatius Von Brandt, a rich braggart, liar, cheap magician, conman and all-round bloody bastard. And I’m not even sure about the rich part.” That felt good. Show him up before he could prey upon this poor waif.
Ignatius looked at Magdaleña, shocked, who looked back at him with a laugh. Job done. Let him be the one who feels a fool.
“I’m sorry, is this a joke?” asked Magdaleña.
“No, it’s no joke, Magdaleña. Last night, he drugged me and tried to take advantage of me. The man’s a liar and a cheat.”
Magdanleña scrunched up her face and looked at Ignatius, as though she was appalled at him. Ignatius placed a hand on Magdaleña’s arm, and the other woman didn’t pull away. Viv sensed him trying to weedle his way back in; he probably couldn’t bear being outed, especially publicly, and especially by a woman.
“I’m sorry, Maggie,” he said, squeezing her arm and rubbing his thumb across her flesh. Although he addressed Magdaleña, he fixed his eyes squarely upon Viv. “Viv is new to all this.” He waved an arm around the room. “She’s a new initiate to our family.”
Maggie? Her shoulders tightened. Had she miscalculated? Or was Ignatius just using his showmanship to wriggle out of trouble? It amazed her just how much she started to doubt herself on the strength of just one whispered word.
Ignatius whispered into Magdaleña’s ear, never once moving his sparkling eyes away from Viv. Discomfort took her, and she wondered exactly what her plan had been? Who was she kidding? Borrowed heels and fake tan wouldn’t make her a part of this scene, any more than sticking a test tube in Ignatius’s immaculately-ironed breast pocket would make him Marie Curie. What a bloody fool she’d been. Again.
Magdaleña put a hand to her chest and broke out an open-mouthed smile, before taking Viv’s hand and holding it closely. She looked as though she was about to burst with excitement. “My God, I’m so envious. The first times… the first times are the most exhilarating. When you become…” she closed her eyes and looked to the heavens, as if caught in the moment of some passing rapture. “When you become part of the whole. The moment of self sacrifice, the moment of giving yourself, and then-”
“Hush, Maggie,” said Ignatius, his hawkish face returning. “Don’t spoil it all. I have high hopes for Vivienne.”
Magdaleña clutched Viv’s arm tightly, and smiled deeply. “We will see each other again, when you are inside.”
Quickly after that Magdaleña was gone, accosted by a magnificent, smiling male model from Ethiopia whom Viv remembered was named Dereje, and who looked as though he’d been carved from stone. He also gave Ignatius a deep, warm smile and a hug with long, branch-like limbs, which Ignatius reciprocated, red cuffs climbing up the model’s back like tongues of flame.
“I was right,” Viv said, once they were alone again. “You are a conning bloody bastard. What was in the drink last night? Diphenhydramine?”
“I don’t know what that is,” came the whisper.
“Oh yeah? I thought you said you were a chemist?” She shook her head and tutted. “Such a bullshitter. Well, you might have her fooled, and all these other poor bastards, but not me. I know what you are, and I stand by what I said. After tonight you won’t see me again.”
“I see,” he said. “Why do you think these people are fooled by me?”
Typical Ignatius to pick on that part of the comment. More misdirection. But Viv played along this time. “Look at all this reverence, for clothes. Reverence for literally something that covers us up, hides who we really are, what we’re really like underneath. I might say that it’s all just skin-deep, but even that’s not true. It’s just a shell. These people are hollow inside.”
Ignatius nodded, as if he agreed. “I understand. But clothes offer protection, for both the wearer and the onlooker. They protect those who wish to hide their true identity, and protect those who do not have the strength to regard such identities. If you perceive a hollowness among these people, might that not be what the wearer wants you to perceive?” He looked at her, letting the question weigh heavy. To her great irritation she had no answer. “And besides, what’s the harm in looking good? Do you think you have embellished your own identity with those nice high heels you’re wearing tonight, or are you disguising it?”
Two minutes ago that question would have been the simplest thing to answer in the world, but now it shredded her. “What did Magdaleña mean, when she said she envied me? Why did you show me the flames? Why did you drug me? Why did you do that thing with your arm?”
He closed his eyes, as though pained, and pressed a thumb and middle finger against his temples. “Too many questions, Vivienne.” He opened his eyes. “But I appreciate your curiosity. The fact you came back is a testament to that.”
“I came back to show you up.”
“I see,” he said, a waspish smile slitting his mouth. “How did that turn out for you?” He waved the question away, as though annoyed at his own rudeness. “I did get your message from the concierge. He said you were quite tenacious. That touched me. If you would like the truth, about the drink, the fire, the arm, then I must ask something of you.”
“I get it. You want me to give myself up,” said Viv. “I don’t know what that means, though. I don’t want to be put in that situation again. It made me afraid.” She looked down briefly. “You don’t know how hard it is for someone like me to say that.”
“You never told me what you saw in the flames.”
Viv wondered why – and how – she was once again playing his game. She spoke softly. “I saw me, and other people from the party yesterday, and I saw you. You had your hands around me, and we were covered in steam.”
“The flames aren’t a crystal ball; they don’t provide visions of the future, or anything like that. They merely show you a reflection of your own unconscious mind. Staring into the fire is like having a waking dream, gentle and distant, a finger pressing upon your hidden self and stimulating it. Come with me. Look into them once more.”
Viv looked down. “I think you’re wasting your time on me, Ignatius. I appreciate the attention…” That’s probably only half a lie. “…but this really isn’t for me.”
“I disagree. If you give yourself up to me, I will give you Anton Petrowski. I’ll show you him, and you will see him as no other person from the outside has.”
He looked deadly serious. She was utterly flabbergasted, and the thought of him pursuing her so relentlessly confused the hell out of her. “Why me?”
“You fascinate me. I can’t help it. Come with me, and I’ll explain all.”