Authors: Peter Straub
FIRST ANCHOR BOOKS EDITION, MAY 2012
Copyright © 2012 by Peter Straub
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Anchor Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Subterranean Press, in 2012.
Anchor Books and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead,
events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Cover design © Henry Steadman
“So, do we get lunch again today?” Ballard asked. They had reached the steaming, humid end of November.
“We got fucking lunch yesterday,” replied the naked woman splayed on the long table: knees bent, one hip elevated, one boneless-looking arm draped along the curves of her body, which despite its hidden scars appeared to be at least a decade younger than her face. “Why should today be different?”
After an outwardly privileged childhood polluted by parental misconduct, a superior education, and two failed marriages, Sandrine Loy had evolved into a rebellious, still-exploratory woman of forty-three. At present, her voice had a well-honed edge, as if she were explaining something to a person of questionable intelligence.
Two days before joining Sandrine on this river journey, Ballard had celebrated his sixty-fifth birthday at a dinner in Hong Kong, one of the cities where he conducted his odd business. Sandrine had not been invited to the dinner and would not have attended if she had. The formal, ceremonious side of Ballard’s life, which he found so satisfying, interested her not at all.
Without in any way adjusting the facts of the extraordinary body she had put on display, Sandrine lowered her eyes from the ceiling and examined him with a glance brimming with false curiosity and false innocence. The glance also contained a flicker of genuine irritation.
Abruptly and with vivid recall, Ballard found himself remembering the late afternoon in 1969 when, nine floors above Park Avenue, upon a carpet of almost unutterable richness in a room hung with paintings by Winslow Homer and Albert Pinkham Ryder, he had stood with a rich scapegrace and client named Lauritzen Loy, his host, to greet Loy’s daughter on her return from another grueling day at Dalton School, then observed the sidelong, graceful, slightly miffed entrance of a fifteen-year-old girl in pigtails and a Jackson Browne sweatshirt two sizes too large, met her gray-green eyes, and felt the very shape of his universe alter in some drastic way, either expanding a thousand times or contracting to a pinpoint, he could not tell. The second their eyes met, the girl blushed, violently.
She hadn’t liked that, not at all.
“I didn’t say it was going to be different, and I don’t think it will.” He turned to look at her, making sure to meet her gaze before letting his eye travel down her neck, over her breasts, the bowl of her belly, the slope of her pubis, the length of her legs. “Are you in a more than ordinarily bad mood?”
“You’re snapping at me.”
Ballard sighed. “You gave me that
. You said, ‘Why should today be different?’ ”
“Have it your way, old man. But as a victory, it’s fucking pathetic. It’s hollow.”
She rolled onto her back and gave her body a firm little shake that settled it more securely onto the steel surface of the table. The metal, only slightly cooler than her skin, felt good against it. In this climate, nothing not on ice or in a freezer, not even a corpse, could ever truly get cold.
“Most victories are hollow, believe me.”
Ballard wandered over to the brass-bound porthole on the deck side of their elaborate, many-roomed suite. Whatever he saw caused him momentarily to stiffen and take an involuntary step backward.
“What’s the view like?”
“The so-called view consists of the filthy Amazon and a boring, muddy bank. Sometimes the bank is so far away it’s out of sight.”
He did not add that a Ballard approximately twenty years younger, the Ballard of, say, 1976, dressed in a handsome dark suit and brilliantly white shirt, was leaning against the deck rail, unaware of being under the eye of his twenty-years-older self. Young Ballard, older Ballard observed, did an excellent job of concealing his dire internal condition beneath a mask of deep, already well-weathered urbanity: the same performance, enacted day after day before an audience unaware of being an audience and never permitted backstage.
Unlike Sandrine, Ballard had never married.
“Poor Ballard, stuck on the
with a horrible view and only his aging, moody girlfriend for company.”
Smiling, he returned to the long steel table, ran his mutilated right hand over the curve of her belly, and cupped her navel. “This is exactly what I asked for. You’re wonderful.”
“But isn’t it funny to think—everything could have been completely different.”
Ballard slid the remaining fingers of his hand down to palpate, lightly, the springy black shrublike curls of her pubic bush.
“Everything is completely different right now.”
“So take off your clothes and fuck me,” Sandrine said. “I can get you hard again in a minute. In thirty seconds.”
“I’m sure you could. But maybe you should put some clothes
, so we could go in to lunch.”
“You prefer to have sex in our bed.”
“I do, yes. I don’t understand why you wanted to get naked and lie down on this thing, anyhow. Now, I mean.”
“It isn’t cold, if that’s what you’re afraid of.” She wriggled her torso and did a snow-angel movement with her legs.
“Maybe this time we could catch the waiters.”
“Because we’d be early?”
Ballard nodded. “Indulge me. Put on that sleeveless white French thing.”
.” She sat up and scooted down the length of the table, pushing herself along the raised vertical edges. These were of dark green marble, about an inch thick and four inches high. On both sides, round metal drains abutted the inner side of the marble. At the end of the table, Sandrine swung her legs down and straightened her arms, like a girl sitting on the end of a diving board. “I know why, too.”
“Why I want you to wear that white thing? I love the way it looks on you.”
“Why you don’t want to have sex on this table.”
“It’s too narrow.”
“You’re thinking about what this table is for. Right? And you don’t want to combine sex with
. Only I think that’s exactly why we
have sex here.”
“Everything we do, remember, is done by mutual consent. Our Golden Rule.”
“Golden Spoilsport,” she said. “Golden Shower of Shit.”
“See? Everything’s different already.”
Sandrine levered herself off the edge of the table and faced him like a strict schoolmistress who happened momentarily to be naked. “I’m all you’ve got, and sometimes even I don’t understand you.”
“That makes two of us.”
She wheeled around and padded into the bedroom, displaying her plush little bottom and sacral dimples with an absolute confidence Ballard could not but admire.
Although Sandrine and Ballard burst, in utter defiance of a direct order, into the dining room a full nine minutes ahead of schedule, the unseen minions had already done their work and disappeared. On the gleaming rosewood table two formal place settings had been laid, the plates topped with elaborately chased silver covers. Fresh irises brushed blue and yellow filled a tall, sparkling crystal vase.
“I swear, they must have a greenhouse on this yacht,” Ballard said.
“Naked men with muddy hair row the flowers out in the middle of the night.”
“I don’t even think irises grow in the Amazon basin.”
“Little guys who speak bird language can probably grow anything they like.”
“That’s only one tribe, the Pirahã. And all those bird sounds are actual words. It’s a human language.” Ballard walked around the table and took the seat he had claimed as his. He lifted the intricate silver cover. “Now, what is that?” He looked across at Sandrine, who was prodding at the contents of her bowl with a fork.
“Looks like a cut-up sausage. At least, I hope it’s a sausage. And something like broccoli. And a lot of orangey-yellowy goo.” She raised her fork and licked the tines. “Um. Tastes pretty good, actually. But …”
For a moment, she appeared to be lost in time’s great forest.
“I know this doesn’t make sense, but if we ever did this before,
this, with you sitting over there and me here, in this same room, well, wasn’t the food even better, I mean a
“I can’t say anything about that,” Ballard said. “I really can’t. There’s just this vague …” The vagueness disturbed him far more than seemed quite rational. “Let’s drop that subject and talk about bird language. Yes, let’s. And the wine.” He picked up the bottle. “Yet again a very nice Bordeaux,” Ballard said, and poured for both of them. “However. What you’ve been hearing are real birds, not the Pirahã.”
“But they’re talking, not just chirping. There’s a difference. These guys are saying things to each other.”
“Birds talk to one another. I mean, they sing.”
She was right about one thing, though: in a funky, down-home way, the stewlike dish was delicious. He thrust away the feeling that it should have been a hundred, a thousand times more delicious: that once it, or something rather like it, had been paradisal.
“Birds don’t sing in sentences. Or in paragraphs, like these guys do.”
“They still can’t be the Pirahã. The Pirahã live about five hundred miles away, on the Peruvian border.”
“Your ears aren’t as good as mine. You don’t really hear them.”
“Oh, I hear plenty of birds. They’re all over the place.”
“Only we’re not talking about
,” Sandrine said.
On the last day of November, Sandrine Loy, who was twenty-eight, constitutionally ill-tempered, and startlingly good-looking (wide eyes, long mouth, black widow’s peak, columnar legs), formerly of Princeton and Clare College, Cambridge, glanced over her shoulder and said, “Please tell me you’re kidding. I just showered. I put on this nice white frock you bought me in Paris. And I’m
.” Relenting a bit, she let a playful smile warm her face for nearly a second. “Besides that, I want to catch sight of our invisible servants.”
“I’m hungry, too.”
“Not for food, unfortunately.” She spun from the porthole and its ugly view—a mile of brown, rolling river and low, muddy banks where squat, sullen natives tended to melt back into the bushes when the
went by—to indicate the evidence of Ballard’s arousal, which stood up, darker than the rest of him, as straight as a flagpole.
“Let’s have sex on this table. It’s a lot more comfortable than it looks.”
“Kind of defeats the fucking purpose, wouldn’t you say? Comfort’s hardly the point.”
“Might as well be as comfy as we can, I say.” He raised his arms to let his hands drape from the four-inch marble edging on the long steel table. “There’s plenty of space on this thing, you know. More than in your bed at Clare.”
“Maybe you’re not as porky as I thought you were.”
“Careful, careful. If you insult me, I’ll make you pay for it.”
At fifty Ballard had put on some extra weight, but it suited him. His shoulders were still wider by far than his hips, and his belly more nascent than actual. His hair, longer than that of most men his age and just beginning to show threads of gray within the luxuriant brown, framed his wide brow and executive face. He looked like an actor who had made a career of playing senators, doctors, and bankers. Ballard’s real profession was that of fixer for an oversize law firm in New York with a satellite office in Hong Kong, where he had grown up. The weight of muscle in his arms, shoulders, and legs reinforced the hint of stubborn determination, even perhaps brutality in his face: the suggestion that if necessary he would go a great distance and perform any number of grim deeds to do what was needed. Scars both long and short, scars like snakes, zippers, and tattoos, bloomed here and there on his body.