Inspired by a classic Sherlock Holmes story, William S. Kirby’s Vienna reimagines Holmes and Watson for the 21st century. Please enjoy this excerpt.
Awake under a hollow sunrise, Justine Am sought cover behind a hangover that wasn’t there. The previous night’s drinking had consisted of two sips of vodka drowning in peach liqueur. She’d switched to tonic water well before the pink eyedropper of liquid ecstasy made its rounds. Not that she would’ve taken part. Boredom was cheaper and it unleashed the same chaos. Sprawled across a stranger’s swaybacked bed, Justine still felt the subterranean echo of house electronica pacing behind her rib cage: boom, boom, boom. She’d fallen in with a post-tribal, post-trance, post-everything crowd. World-weary gods draped over the cherry and onyx pillows of Holler. They’d offered her a sucker’s bet and she’d raised the stakes right into this bed.
Sketchy times since Prague. Pouring rain and the howl of police sirens; a lone separatist locked in the Dancing House with a vest of high explosives and a heart of rust. Security concerns caused a three-day delay, even though the standoff only lasted four hours. Local politicians didn’t want to take chances of an A-list fashion model getting splattered across the electorate.
Then a two-night shoot for the Clay to Flesh project, set in front of the Národní Muzeum. City lights doubled across wet concrete. Justine in Dory McCallister’s iconic drop-waist silks, posed next to a wooden manikin. She mimicked the statue’s skipping stance, toes pointed and fingers splayed. The photographer’s ancient camera whirred to life. Justine called up her world-famous smile, coy under lowered eyelids. Through the thin fabric across her legs, she felt the first breath of winter falling from blue-white stars.
Returning the following evening, it was bad enough Justine thought the two-hundred-year-old manikin had shifted positions overnight; worse that she’d mentioned it to her agent. Nothing good had happened in the four days since, and last night hit magnitude nine on the nothing good scale.
And yet, the wooden girl had moved between the two sessions. It’d been such a certainty at the time. A subtle swing to a more rigid stance. The manikin’s tupelo smile tightening to a sadistic leer. Justine had gone as far as calling up the previous night’s photos, but the manikin had been backlit to the point of being little more than a silhouette. She’d tried pointing out what she saw to James, but the more she spoke, the more she sounded as if she were trying to convince herself. James had been at his most patronizing. “Pinocchio aside, I doubt wooden dolls come to life.”
The episode had left Justine feeling idiotic. Fears barely controlled back in med school rattled loose chains. Echoes of children screaming at the pasty green cinder blocks of the Felton Gables Ward.
Am I becoming like them?
Justine opened her eyes. The yellowed plaster overhead was split by a lightning bolt fracture. She stared at the leading edge, anxious that her presence would somehow cause it to spread another quarter inch. After a few seconds, she realized someone had used a fine-tipped pencil to outline the crack with machine precision; as if cordoning off the defect. But sadness spilled over nonetheless, seeping down the ancient walls.
She remembered a rant from her Stanford bioethics professor: “Doctors don’t save lives. Doctors only give life a chance. Learn the difference or get out.”
The thin breeze coming through the bedside window smelled of lilac. Where would such an ambitious flower grow in Lower Town’s acres of eroded stone? Justine sat up, pulling a threadbare sheet with her. The bed springs released her 116 pounds in a chorus of squeaks.
She hunched over by the small window. Three stories down, a fairy-tale church of arches and spires overshadowed a plaza of gray cobblestone. The building’s walls were etched in soot, although a battered section of scaffolding suggested a minor restoration was underway. It looked like a hundred other churches Justine had seen, except for the doors: two massive slabs of burgundy under a Gothic arch. They told her nothing. Every other building in Brussels was a church.
The tortoiseshell glasses that had landed her here were folded on a plastic nightstand. She put them on in hopes they might allow her to read the small white-on-blue street sign posted on the church. There was no change looking through the spotless lenses.
“I need those.”
Justine turned and saw the punch line of last night’s tired joke. The girl’s cinnamon-brown hair, shoulder length and of that extreme fineness that would tangle over a whisper. Stone-washed hazel eyes above expressionless lips. The nose was better, a modestly upturned anime arc soon to be consumed by the Frankenstein glasses. Her skin was clear to the point of unhealthy pallor, accenting her wispy frame. Her name was something cringe-worthy—a place name.
Even in the morning sun, she seemed nothing more than a lesser poltergeist. Bound to her forgotten crypt with no television, no computer, no MP3 player. No phone. Only a single stack of old hardcovers, their spines tight against the wall. Justine handed Vienna the glasses. Why would anyone wear nonprescription lenses?
“Do you want breakfast?” Vienna asked. Her British accent sounded like a cheap imitation. She’d looked a timid twenty in last night’s glittering lights. Justine found herself praying for eighteen. What was the age of consent in Belgium? Followed by the most dreaded cliché in the business: Did the blogs already have pictures?
And when had Vienna drifted out of bed anyway? Justine felt the pinpricks of her flight reflex, kicking in eight hours too late. “What are you making?”
“Eggs, orange juice, strawberries, and tea.”
It sounded harmless. “Do I have time to shower?”
“Have you seen my BlackBerry?” Justine asked.
“You left it in the bathroom.”
“I need to check for messages.” Justine stood, the thin sheet falling away.
“Heather!” Vienna darted around the bed, averting her eyes and yanking the shade across the tiny window. Her movement was subtly stuttered—exaggerated in a way that suggested either phencyclidine abuse or a developmental disorder. Then she was gone, out to the small kitchen. Justine was left feeling unaccountably self-conscious.
Why did I give her my real name? She pulled the top book in the stack away from the wall enough to see the title on the spine: Methods of Political Assassination in Nazi Germany.
Justine kept her eyes open in the standing-room-only shower. As if Vienna might sneak in, wielding a knife like Anthony Perkins. It seemed fitting that the shower curtain was a perfect set piece. Flat gray, with no tropical fish, no blooming flowers, no unicorns. Justine looked closer. Not even a textural pattern in the plastic. It might have worked in modern design, but here, where a splash of color would have been blessed relief, it hung off the bar like a funeral shroud.
Water hissed against the plastic as Justine straightened. She closed her eyes and heard static pouring from her grandfather’s ancient radio. Minor league baseball wavering over Montana from somewhere in Colorado … hanging slider … out of the park … Words lost in a crescendo of pops and crackles. Lord help you if you touched the tuner. A decade gone and it felt more real than this bleak apartment.
Justine frowned. More wicked Prague karma.
That stupid manikin.
Followed by an even more dreary thought: I had sex with a woman last night.
Well, sort of. Vienna had approached lovemaking like a blind girl playing connect-the-dots: every step planned and executed with painstaking attention that was endearing for two minutes and tedious the next forty. You would at least think another woman would know what worked and what didn’t. Another myth shattered. It wasn’t as if Vienna was a virgin. Justine had felt compelled to check after the first fifteen minutes.
And that’s the extent of what I know about her. That, and the fact that Vienna didn’t smell like anything. Not perfume, or deodorant, or shampoo. And not, thank goodness, the vinegar reek cultivated by a handful of Europe’s old-school bathing deniers. Nothing. As if she had been scrubbed in an alpine lake and sealed in her black shirtdress. It didn’t fit anywhere on Justine’s organizational chart of social status.
Justine absently rubbed the sleek lizard tattoo on her left hip. A reminder of choices made, some worse than others.
Out of the shower, she took her BlackBerry from the tiny vanity. The first call had to be to her agent, still hanging on her shoulder. Making certain his prize mare wasn’t losing her head; asking every five minutes if she was okay, or if she needed rest. Or if she was seeing any other statues move.
James Hargrave was his usual triple-espresso alert. Justine described the church—it had to be near the Grand-Place de Bruxelles, as they had walked through that ancient mall with the glass ceiling. There had been a sculpture of a well-endowed cat on a bicycle along the way.
James asked her what the hell she thought she was doing.
“I’m not your daughter, James. I’m fine. Go back to New York.”
“I will when you stop seeing manikins dance around.”
“It was a joke,” Justine said.
He said he would send a car when he had the church pinned down, and that there was a surprise waiting, and she had to be in the chair by 9:30 for the second day of the Brussels Clay to Flesh shoot, and she had to give Bernoulli an answer for his winter show at Carrousel du Louvre by three at the latest as she had already put him off once, and London called for a Vogue cover and they were offering an ungodly amount of money, but Sandra Bennet just had to have Justine Am for next fall’s fashion issue and they already confirmed Smyth and Weston for hair and face, and they were going to be in London for the next stage of Clay to Flesh anyway, so why not do it?
Justine said fine and hung up; slipping into a Toni Frieze original that would pay six months’ rent on Vienna’s prêt-à-porter life.
The claustrophobic hall held the only art Vienna seemed to own. An elfish girl with jet-black hair and serrated beauty. Justine recognized it as a cover from one of Björk’s early solo efforts. The bottom tenth of the poster, which must have held a track listing, had been trimmed off. The pencil had been used here as well. A nested frame of eight concentric rectangles had been drafted onto the plaster. Justine brushed her fingers over the lines, feeling shallow grooves etched into the surface. It seemed to her that if she found the perfect tension, the furrows would play back like old vinyl. A recording of whatever madness had set the pencil in motion.
A deep breath and on to the galley kitchen.
Vienna was dressed for a ’60s Disney musical: white pinafore over a powder blue shirt. Faux mother of pearl buttons. Methodically clipping fresh chives over frying eggs. The girl looked up from her work, peering through the useless glasses. “Your hair is blond.”
Brunette, but now wasn’t the time to explain. “Yes?”
“It was blue last night.”
Justine laughed. “Soluble dye for a last-minute promo. The ads are already printed and going up today.”
“A photo shoot for high-end footwear.”
The girl’s eyes pinched together. “You dye your hair blue to photograph shoes?”
“No, silly. People take pictures of me wearing the shoes.”
“Oh. I thought it was a little odd. Sort of scary. Pretty though.”
It finally hit Justine on a visceral level that Vienna had no clue who Justine Am was. It made her feel as if she’d drifted too far from shore. Reaching down with her toes and not touching bottom. “Thank you, I think.” The involuntary gulp of mossy lake water.
Vienna nodded. “The eggs are ready, if you want.”
Justine tried to remember the exact moment when any of this had seemed like a good idea. Didn’t you always say you wanted adventure?
They sat at the table, white plates flanked by unadorned flatware. Justine was surprised how hungry the childhood smell of salt and pepper on eggs made her. Vienna served them sunny-side up, salmonella be damned. Justine didn’t have the heart to turn them down. Poison or not they were delicious, and the macerated strawberries were dead ripe. Better add an extra half hour at the gym.
Justine ate in silence; noted that Vienna placed her own berries as far as possible from the eggs. Shepherding runny yolks away. Justine had observed such behavior numerous times during her internship. Seeing it repeated in this airless apartment made her queasy.
“I’ll do dishes,” Vienna said after she finished. She reached for the plates and Justine saw the girl’s fingernails were chewed ragged. Justine had seen plenty of that back at Stanford as well.
Hurry up, James.
Vienna’s black flats whispered over the floor; a sheet of white laminate running into the narrow hallway. The same floor in the bedroom and bathroom. Justine couldn’t remember seeing a solitary seam breaking its nonreflective surface. How would such a large piece have been unrolled and installed? It must have cost a fortune. Maybe it was there before Vienna moved in?
It’s none of my business. Justine sat in awkward silence before deciding conversation was the least of evils. “You’re a student?”
“It’s just the stack of books in your room.”
Vienna paused. “I’m learning World War Two this week.”
“Hitler and Himmler. Goring, Goebbels, yeah?” She paused. “Bernie Madoff.”
Justine laughed before she realized how odd it was to hear Vienna trying to joke. Even more astounded to hear the girl exhale a single sigh of laughter. As if she had at last been given permission to act human, only to forget how.
The BlackBerry interrupted with an oldie Justine’s parents had gotten her hooked on. The world was moving, she was right there with it and she was. Vienna inhaled at the sound.
“Yes?” Justine said into the phone.
“Eglise St.-Jean-du-Béguinage,” James said.
“The church with red doors. We’re in the courtyard.”
“Be right there.” She turned off the phone. “Vienna, I have to—”
“‘And She Was,’” Vienna said. “Three minutes, thirty-nine seconds. Track number one of Little Creatures, by the Talking Heads. June 16, 1985, Sire Records. ID Number TAH-2. All songs by David Byrne unless noted.”
“Your ringtone. It’s about a girl who took LSD near a factory that made chocolate milk.”
“I didn’t know that.” Justine forced a smile. “I have to leave, honey. I have a shoot with Vincent Mathews this afternoon.”
“Is he your boyfriend?”
“Matty? Hardly. Don’t you ever watch TV?”
Vienna’s voice was almost too soft to hear. “It’s bad for me.”
“Because I’m broken.”
“I’m sorry.” What am I supposed to say? “I have to go.”
“I can walk you down.”
“You don’t have to.”
“I need to go to work.”
Justine sighed. Whatever got her out of this broken-soul corner of the universe the quickest.
Out into Brussels’s hazy October; sunlight spreading across the ash-colored city in a watery blush. A summer morning arriving three months late. The air already felt like dilute glue.
The limo was waiting, a glossy special effect projected in front of the medieval church. James would have the AC on full. Justine put on her sunglasses. “This is good-bye.”
“Take care, Vienna.” It almost sounded like an apology.
Justine was mortified when the girl followed her to the car, even more so when Grant stepped from the back. The surprise James had mentioned. Grant’s Hermès jeans and black T-shirt looked painted on his surfer boy frame. His wavy brown hair cropped short. He smiled behind Oakley wraps. Paint him white and snap off his arms and you would have a Greek statue.
“I told you not to come, silly,” Justine said. “I don’t have much free time.”
“We’ll make do.” He gave her an unhurried kiss. Nothing less than full on the lips for Grant. “Introduce your companion?”
“This is Vienna, an old friend I was visiting. Vienna? This is Grant Eriksson.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Vienna.”
Justine interrupted before Vienna could explain that a one-night stand didn’t amount to being friends. “Grant’s an old friend, too.” Well, he’d lasted more than a night, anyway.
Vienna nodded. “Where are you from, Mr. Grant?”
Justine rolled her eyes, glad they were hidden behind her sunglasses’ oil-slick lenses.
Grant smiled, he was too aware of being in public not to. “America—a small town in Nebraska.”
In a frozen heartbeat, so quickly gone Justine wasn’t sure she’d even seen it, Vienna’s lips twisted into a leer of purest loathing.
“What town?” Her voice as empty as ice on a lake.
Grant looked at Justine, who could only summon a shrug. “Kearney.”
“The elm trees there are lovely.”
Grant smiled. “Especially in autumn.” He glanced at his Breitling, reflections from the bezel skipping across the plaza. “We’re running late.” He nodded toward Vienna. “Good to meet you.”
Grant guided Justine to the car. James Hargrave sat shotgun, wearing his annoyance in a gunfighter scowl. Doors shut. Justine looked back at the girl, standing alone by the church. Motionless as a statue. Or as motionless as any statue except that idiotic manikin in Prague.
Just get me out of here.
The limo turned down a canyon etched in the gothic landscape, and Vienna was gone.
I have to call Bernoulli this afternoon. Paris in the off-season sounds perfect.
Copyright © 2015 by William S. KirbyVienna goes on sale September 1st. Pre-order it today: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million | iBooks | Indiebound | Powell's | Walmart