For a Breath of Fresh Air
For Sale: Tombstone, beautiful black granite. Excellent condition--unused and, given present circumstances, unlikely to be used (at least by myself). Perfect for someone named Lamia M. Illmann. Call for location.
Amazing, what you can find in the classifieds, isn't it?
I crumpled the paper into a ball and tossed it to Stefan across the room; it bounced along the floor, leaving streaks of dark cherry wood show beneath six decades of dust.
"What's this?" he asked, pulling a pair of black-framed reading glasses from his pocket and gingerly lifting the newsprint between his fingers.
"My little celebration of our new life," I answered, stretching out across the threadbare cushion of my window seat. "Look under Miscellaneous, third item from the top."
Stefan squinted over the page and absently tucked a strand of dark hair behind his ear. "Your tombstone?" He raised an eyebrow. "Lamia, how much did it cost?"
"Oh." I shrugged and pillowed my hands behind my neck. "Twenty bucks, give or take. I could've got the ad in about fifty local papers for an extra ten."
"What? We've got time enough to make up the cash, if you get my drift."
Stefan carefully folded the paper and added it to the rest of the Herald on his desk. "The Myronia is expensive, sweetheart," he said. "Twenty dollars could buy you a day's worth. We need that money."
I sighed. He was right about that; immortality comes at a price.
"Leave it to scientists," I said. "They develop a pill that can slow your metabolism and create proteins faster than you can say 'play God', and then they charge you your now permanently attached arm and a leg for the damn thing."
Stefan smiled. "At least we got the house cheep, huh?"
Some truth in that, at least. The mansion had been a great find: a massive black structure, with marble fireplaces in every room, pleasantly creaking wood floors, and thick granite walls to keep the outside world at bay. Two long stained-glass windows brightened each dusty room, and the smell of cloth-and-wood dust filled the hallways. The last owners had vacated it sixty years before, and the house desperately needed repairs. It was my dream come true--with only one exception.
I could see that one exception from my window. Actually, I could see it from every room in the eastern wing: the County Sanitarium. Another titanic stone building, white and oppressive, and old as all hell. Its doric columned facade towered over black-top parking lots, where nervous families with neon-orange visitor passes around their necks scurried to and from their cars, glancing now and then up at my study window as if looking for anything to occupy their line of vision but the ivory hospital.
A shudder ran down my spine, and I turned away from the window.
"Why don't you open it up a bit?" Stefan suggested, waving his hand towards the window latch. His glasses were once again tucked safely in his pocket, and his green eyes sparkled in the light from the antique candelabra.
"You know why," I answered. "The smell. It's Clorox, or something like it--you know what I'm talking about. Hospitals love it, they think they can cover up the taste of sickness if they spray enough air freshener." The Sanitarium had been spraying it for over six decades, long enough for the scent to permeate the very stone, so that everything for a mile around smelled like citrus. "It's not even real citrus," I added. "Real citrus isn't soapy, and it isn't that fresh. It smells organic."
Stefan shrugged. Nine years of listening to my rants had gotten him used to them. "They don't make organic air fresheners, Lamia. It's always fresh lemon, fresh coconut, fresh pine--"
"Fresh chemical bleach shit." Even "Fresh After-the-Rain", but I'd never found rain to leave a fresh smell behind it so much as a wholesome, earthy one.
"That's what I love about you," Stefan said with a grin. "You pick the most bizarre things to gripe about. You're living right up the hill from a mental hospital, your well-being is entirely dependent on a blue pill the size of your fingernail, but you complain that the neighbors use to much Febreeze."
I swung my legs over the side of the window ledge. "It's how I've stayed young."
"Well, no more of that," he said. "That's what scientists made Myroniafor."
The bare floorboards were cold underneath the soles of my thin damask slippers. "No, they made Myronia to keep us alive. It's up to me--up to us--to keep ourselves young."
"I don't seem to be doing too well at that," he said simply, and turned back to the folder on his desk. "What time were you planning on heading downtown, anyway?"
"You're supposed to be meeting with Maris, remember?"
Of course. The second Sunday of every month, one of us had to go down to the Laudanum building to meet with our supplier, Maris Cobran. Stefan had gone for the past three months, but the incident in April left him less than willing to handle Maris again anytime soon.
"I guess I can go now."
"Not dressed like that," Stefan grinned.
I looked down at my outfit: worn out jeans, blue and gray slippers, an old tee shirt claiming "Copernicus had the Right Idea" in faded iron-on letters. All in all, probably not the best thing to wear to the Laudanum building, the seat of modern Heretic-naming and Scientist-burning in the United States (and quite a comfortable seat it is, too--half a million dollars spent furnishing the lobby alone). How Maris managed to rent an office in there, I'll never know.
"I'll change," I offered, and started towards the door.
"Never," Stefan laughed.
I think I was standing on the rough-brick sidewalk in front of the Laudanum building, counting out the bills for an overpriced taxi ride, before Stefan realized I had been talking about my clothes.
Did I say half a million dollars went into furnishing the lobby of the Laudanum building? I was mistaken. It must have cost at least twice that much.
The first thing you'll notice on coming through the eighteen-foot cut glass double doors is the smell. It smells like coffee and chrysanthemums, roses and Rolex watches. The water spilling down the sides of a marble fountain smells like the finest merlot, and, if you close your eyes and just stand still for a moment, you can smell the crisp scent of the dollar bills that built this place. No one knows where the money came from--at least, that's what they'll tell you. I, of course, have my own suspicions about how Maris Cobran and her contemporaries have up to this point avoided the enviable title of "heretic" that the Laudanum family is so quick to stamp on their kind.
After the smell, if you're still coherent enough, you'll probably notice the massive gold tree hanging on the south wall, emblazoned with the names of scientists "Dedicated to the Truth"--that is, not setting one atom across the dividing line of theoretical/experimental science. Theories, as Urban Laudanum the third would gladly tell you, are dangerous things. Why, you could create the most beautiful theory in the world, only to have it shattered by an ugly fact. Urban Laudanum the third is not a fan of having beautiful things shattered.
Or so he'll tell you. I know of quite a few theorists whose beautiful reputations were quite mercilessly ground under the heal of Laudanum's patent leather boot who might disagree.
I shook my head to clear it of the strange mixture of smells and glanced around the lobby, looking for Maris. Ah, yes, right under the golden tree. Elegant black chopsticks held her dark brown hair in a loose bun, and I couldn't help but notice a few streaks of gray that weren't there the last time I'd seen her. Something to do with the incident, I suspected. I couldn't help but notice that Anthonius Cobran was nowhere to be seen.
"Good afternoon, Ms. Illman," she said stiffly as I approached. She wore a severe black suit and skirt set, and the sort of flat-heeled, no nonsense kind of shoes I'd have expected to see on a woman twice her age.
"Hello, Maris," I returned, leaning forward to kiss her on the mouth. But Maris was one of those old fashioned sorts, not given to physical contact with her own sex, and she gave me only the briefest of handshakes before leading me to the elevator.
We got off on her floor, a good twelve stories above the rose-and-ivory lobby. Her office seemed dark and antique by comparison, with its ebony desk and tall green filing cabinets. Anthonius sat in a short chair by the window, fumbling nervously with a wooden box in his lap.
"Good afternoon, Ms. Illman," he said. The same words as his wife, but in a completely different tone. Anthonius's voice made me think of my years working in a theater, surrounded by bolts of heavy fabric, pieces of scenery, and little trays of stage make-up. It was warm and soft, and he had the strangest way of pronouncing his spaces.
"It's nice to see you again, Anthoni," I began, but Maris cut me off. She had already pulled the chopsticks out of her hair, and it flowed down around her shoulders like the fog around the Laudanum building.
"Let us get straight to the point, Lamia," she said, holding out a perfectly manicured hand to her husband. He quickly handed her the box, as if it had suddenly caught fire. "I have in here your month's supply of Myronia. It is the last month's dosage before Mr. Hadix owes me another check--owes us another check," she amended, seeing the dangerous look in Anthonius's red-brown eyes.
"I'll be sure to let him know," I said cautiously, reaching out for the box.
But Maris seemed in no mood to comply. "I need that check, Lamia," she said through gritted teeth. "Stefan put me in a bad situation last month. If Anthoni cannot pay to relocate our sources, all four of us could be in trouble."
"We are in trouble," Anthonius sighed. "Needless to say, Laudanum was not pleased to find me dealing in theoretical medicine--we're only lucky hedoesn't know what it does. Can you imagine what he'd say if he knew there wereImmortals walking around in his own building? Anyway,he gave me a month to either betray my sources or, well...my other option doesn't really bear considering."
"So you're hoping you can just send your sources packing and that'll be the end of it? I doubt Laudanum will give up that easily."
"What else can I do?" Anthonius ran his hand through his jet-black hair. "If I could just prove that the Myronia effects could be measured..."
"But that would involve handing me and Stefan over to the Laudanums and, quite obviously, you don't plan on doing that," I finished hastily.
"No, I don't. At least, not yet. But Stefan was caught handing the Myroniatoo and, no matter what you may have heard about Urban, he's not a complete idiot. He'll know something's up with you."
"You didn't give him our names, did you?"
"Of course not," Maris answered quickly. "We said he was just the delivery man. We got lucky that time--Bodendofer on the sixth floor was getting a shipment in, so a truck was parked out back."
"Still," Anthonius cautioned, "laboratories aren't exactly thick on the ground. And it's not as though our friends could rent from Urban, now is it? This won't be cheep."
"That is why we need the check, now," Maris said.
I leaned against the desk, and knocked over a tall pile of manila folders. Maris hastily dropped to her hands an knees to gather them all up.
"I'll try," I said at last.
"We're trusting you," Anthonius said firmly. "Get us the money by next Sunday. I don't care if you have to sell produce from your garden, your kitchen appliances, you can sell Stefan himself for all I care."
"I'll try," I said again.
"You had better," Maris muttered, pulling herself to her feet. "Because if you don't, all our lives could be at stake."
I think she was sanding on the rough-brick sidewalk in front of the Laudanum building later that evening, flagging down an overpriced taxi, before I realized that she'd meant it literally.
Stefan took the news even worse than I'd expected.
"They want three hundred grand by next Sunday?" he shouted, pulling the shades on our parlor window shut so roughly I thought they'd tear. "Cobran's insane."
I shrugged. "Maris and Anthoni have Urban breathing down their necks now," I said, lifting my pillow and blankets from their oak chest and dropping them on the open sofa-bed. "I can't blame them for demanding the money."
"If they're so keen on relocating their elusive little friends, why don't they pay for it themselves?"
"Would you rather they didn't relocate?" I asked. "Look,these little friends of Maris and Anthoni's are the only reason we're still alive. We need that MyroniaMaris needs that money. And unless you can come up with some brilliant and plausible excuse for why you were in the same room as a blatantly illegal formula,we're all going to be in some serious trouble."
"We aren't already?" Stefan shook his head and lay his own bedding out on the smaller sofa next to mine.
"Not as badly as we could be, if Urban found our sources. We need to hide them, Stefan."
"So why don't Maris and Anthonius pay for it?"
"You know perfectly well they don't have that kind of money," I said firmly. He had an uncomfortable fetish for hearing me describe the financial situations of our friends.
"Their job pays well," Stefan replied, fluffing his pillow with far more force than necessary. "I hear there's money to be made in experimental medicine."
"There's money to be made in experimental anything." I laughed humorlessly and flung myself onto the bed. "But to do any experimenting, they've got to rent a room from the Laudanums."
I pulled a ragged quilt up over my legs as Stefan began pacing. I understood what was fustrating him, but there was nothing either of us could do. The Laudanums held the key to every reputable laboratory for five thousand miles in any direction, and the Cobrans were smart enough to know when they were cornered. If they didn't stay in Urban's good graces, they didn't stay alive.
So much for advancing society.
"Science is dead, isn't it?" Stefan asked suddenly, stoping in mid-step and laying down on his sofa. "Science, Math, Religion, Morals. All anyone thinks about these days is their art."
I closed my eyes and breathed in the musty smell of my pillow. "You sound like my mother. You know, it was that kind of talk that made me run away with you in the first place. I couldn't stand her bitching."
Stefan gave a low chuckle. "But you can stand mine?"
"Sure. But only for a little while."
"Anyways..." I heard the springs in Stefan's sofa creak as he turned towards me. "Science really is dead, though. The Laudanums are just a machine forcing stale air into its lungs. No one want to experiment anymore, and even fewer people want to theorize. Everyone wants to write poetry, and paint, and design more and more insane architecture--"
"Hey," I said quickly, leaning over and clutching his hand. "Relax, Stefan. Art is just this century's pursuit, okay? The twentieth century was the age of science. We've moved on to bigger and brighter things!"
"I know," Stefan mumbled, brushing his long hair away from his face. "I just can't help the feeling that if we keep depending on the oxygen Laudanum is forcing into the lungs of science, we're all going to die gasping for a breath of fresh air."
I woke to the sound of the phone ringing in the kitchen. We must have left the study windows open, because the entire house tasted like fresh lemon bleech. God, what I would have given for the fresh air of Stefan's metaphor.
Our elegantly stenciled phone was icy cold to the touch--almost as cold as Maris's voice when it blared eerily from the reciever, franticly whispering that Anthonius was missing.