The hills above Burbank were on fire again. The afternoon sun shone through the anvilhead of smoke, lending everything on the street an acidic orange cast. It looked like the end of the world. Pedestrians glanced anxiously upward as the never-ending sunshine was interfered with.
Lavender was faintly pleased by this, by the unnatural light, too. She peered from the slit of her window, red locks caught by the wind, furtively people-watching. She basked in the gloom that settled over Californians whenever the sky was leaden and overcast... she wasn't sure when this had started, but took comfort from being uncomfortable with it.
In the golden carnival-glass netsuke where she kept her amyls she'd also tossed a few cyanide capsules, for her own entertainment. She hadn't made a mistake yet, although in her fuzziness she'd come close once or twice. Lavender fingered it along with the contents of her pockets. Her coat looked like something Genghis Khan would have worn.
The Maybach bullied through afternoon traffic, making no particular headway. It was comfortable so she didn't mind, though she wanted to get this business over with. Vulnavia and Worm had both on separate occasions suggested it be equipped with concealed Gatling guns, and under such advisement she was considering the idea. Somebody could be paid off to make it happen.
Mmm, carbon monoxide.
Lavender put her mouth to the slit of window and sucked in Los Angeles air, finding it a drug superior to the cornucopia someone of her means might avail herself of. And it was free to all! Her lashes fluttered over rolled-back eyes and she felt real for a moment. She shoved this feeling aside, wiped the moisture from the corners of her eyes. This was no way to walk through walls. Just as inappropriately she laughed, eye-teeth stabbing at air.
How unlike a palace, she thought. Gray and mauve and peacock. The office of the label's contact man. She knew it was out of fashion because magazines said so. The visual noise helped some. Lavender threw off her coat, folded it over her arm and laid it over a chair. Beneath, her raiment was characteristically form-fitting. Would she sit? She didn't mean to wait for long.
The office manager greeted her with a mein of one speaking simultaneously to royalty and to a small child. An imperceptibly stooped posture, servility which concealed the arm twisted behind your back, the cane across your knuckles.
Lavender waved away offers of coffee laced with cocaine. She wanted to be relatively straight. But the office manager pressed the attack.
"Ketamine, laudanum, guarana, salvia, tetracycline? Some butyl benzyl phthalate, maybe?"
"No, thank you."
"Maybe you'd like me to freshen your E-142 levels," said the office manager, smiling sweetly.
Lavender created a gracious expression and wore it. "That's quite all right." The expression meant this exchange was over and it fit like a key in its lock. She resisted the geometric seating arrangement, its call to surrender her time to another's plans.
The doorkeeper became anxious. A caller who wouldn't sit was one who meant to have their way with her boss. Such attempts did not succeed. Her job was to defuse such incidents before they happened, no matter how entertaining they might be. "Are you sure there isn't anything I--"
Lavender lifted her hand, canted the index finger skyward, like she was about to draw down some rhetorical point, but said nothing, did not even look up. She nearly shuddered with the delightful imperiousness of it, like a magic sigil filling her with power. There was quiet.
She knew the office manager was Max's appendage, and if she took Lavender's orders it was a charade for purposes of maintenance, a strictly-followed script, a sticky trap, an endulgence. Even using her friend-name ('Susan') was part of the game. But it felt so good; this too was part of the snare. Lavender was getting high on poison, but nothing else did the trick.
Sound from the inner chamber was readable long before Max Baxter emerged. He was unshaken by an intent gaze. The man was a variety of transparent stone, it seemed; the charisma of his clients passed right through without touching. Constant exposure granted immunity. He did not yet hate them; when that day came his usefulness would be over. There was a gray suit and a bald head and lye sweetened with honey. Crude + cultured = urbane. Whatever the pretense he was not one of Lavender's servants; he considered the relationship quite the opposite, and being truthful to herself Lavender knew this was so. She suspected a greater truth as well, but his inflexibility was the reason for what was coming.
Lavender stepped forward, restraining her feigned impatience. "I'm pleased that you stayed to see me personally, Max--"
"I'm always happy to talk to you, Lavender."
"--knowing what I wish to discuss."
"I think it is you whose patience is considerable," said Baxter, "since you know my position isn't going to change on this."
Footfalls resounded, uncomfortably crisp in the garage, in the sudden bake of 'outside.' Max's shoes gave the faintly muted clump of comfortable, expensive leather. Lavender's boots clonked, barked slightly on the pavement, suggesting rigidity. Echoes came half a second later off of distant bare concrete. Through postmodern parapets the awful glaring afternoon shone, kissing aqua phantoms onto the retina.
"I'm sorry, Lavender, it just isn't going to happen." The man was made of diamond. Lavender followed along, watching Baxter, listening. "Recording contracts simply do not work that way."
Lavender's gaze implored. "Contracts are whatever they're made to be, aren't they?" She heard the creeling of static, back and far away.
"This one is to the company's advantage as-is. Could it be more advantageous done the way you're proposing? Sure. But the contract we have now is good enough for the company, and as a representative of this company, I don't see the need to monkey with it." Max didn't break stride as he expounded.
"I could bring in someone to help me with this," said Lavender. She sounded embarrassed to say so.
"And if you gotta do that, that's what you've gotta do. But this is a pretty standard contract, and you're gonna have a hard time arguing against a contract that's fine for everyone else." He stopped beside his car, a Jaguar. "Did the valet move my fucking car again? I hate that." Max turned to Lavender. "So that's how it is."
Lavender tilted her head, blinking diffidently, trying to ignore the tunnel vision.
"I mean, do you want a bigger cut of the merchandise? There's some play there." He opened the door and sank into the driver's seat.
Lavender shook her head softly. "That isn't what I need," she sighed, and squeezed her eyes shut.
"The fuck?" Max said as he felt something cold touch the back of his neck, which was the barrel of a handgun held by the man in black lying in the back seat of his automobile.
Lavender opened her eyes.
"Shut up," said the man. Another figure opened the passenger door and smoothly slipped into the car beside Max. He wore a black trenchcoat and a black rag over his mouth and nose, and he too was armed.
Max did shut up for several seconds, at least until he understood. "You've gotta be kidding me." He eyed Lavender, who shook her head lightly. "You think this is the fucking movies?"
"No, it's the real world."
"Yeah, that's what you think," said Max, although he sounded distinctly troubled. It seemed misplaced on him.
Lavender bit her lip. "It is what I think, and I don't see the need to change it." She grinned pensively.
Max realized he was being zinged. "Yeah, real cute."
"Drive," said the man in the back.
Lavender stepped back as Baxter put the Jaguar in gear and backed out of the space. She waved weakly and walked back to the elevator, the car creeping away behind her. For a moment she felt nauseous, and she paused in the vestibule, holding herself until it passed.
The office manager was just about to lock up when she heard a tap on the door.
"Susan? I forgot my coat." The pale, slinky figure drifted into the office, looking spectral and reluctant. "There it is."
The manager smiled. "You need me to call your car?"
Lavender's lashes raked up and down as she smiled back. "That would be great."
"She's rid herself of Maxwell Baxter."
"Mm. Another one?" A pause. "Who was he again?"
"Our liason at the record company. He was handling her directly."
"She's becoming quite ruthless, isn't she?"
"...is that all you have to say?"
"No. Keep watching her."
"Feldmann is likely to move up in his place, and we don't have him yet."
"Get to him, then," said the voice with mild irritation.