Camilla: You, sir, should unmask.
Cassilda: Indeed, it’s time. We have all laid aside disguise but you.
Stranger: I wear no mask.
Camilla: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!
* * * * *
The irony that the last three descendants of the Carcosan Dynasty had ended up living in the penthouse apartment of a building on the Rue de la Republique had long ago lost even the slightest trace of grim humour for them, yet half-siblings Claudine and Jean-Laurent and their cousin Thierry had never been able to put it out of their minds completely.
Consider the three of them, lounging around the salon on that sultry early evening in mid-August, caught up once again in one of their customary situations of simmering resentment and jealousy. Claudine, the eldest of the three by a small margin although still a young woman in the scheme of things, was the only one to have had bestowed on her the mahogany hair, pale complexion with a hint of olive to it, thick brows and large, soft, dark-brown eyes characteristic of their ancient House, looks which cause her frequently to be mistaken for an immigrée from the Levant; both her half-brother and their mutual cousin, the youngest of the three, had inherited their greenish eyes, sandy hair and skin that tended towards the florid from their grandmother, an American of Irish stock. As had happened in every generation of this unguessably ancient line, there had been a terrible tension between the need to maintain the family’s power and wealth through marriage with outlying cadet branches, and the knowledge that this persistent inbreeding was leading to the ever more prevalent occurrence of both physical and mental feebleness and, over the last century especially, outright madness.
Jean-Laurent is sat on one end of the long, low couch that runs across one end of the salon, the huge latticed western window behind him giving him a great flaming crown of golden yellow. He’s absently drumming the fingers of one hand on his thigh while his other hand holds a half-consumed Gitane. He smiles at no-one and nothing: the smile does not quite reach his eyes. At the other end of the couch, facing away and studiously ignoring him, sits his half-sister. Glacially gorgeous and totally unreadable, she too holds a cigarette but it’s unlit and she twirls it between her slender fingers like a majorette’s baton, first one way and then the other. She has her legs tucked beneath her, like a cat. And in a high-backed chair, squinting slightly as he looks from one cousin to the other, Thierry forms the third point of an isosceles triangle. He isn’t smoking, but is consuming a sizeable glass of eau de vie rather more rapidly than most people normally would.
“Shall we head out? Try and get some air? I feel like I’m suffocating in here”, Thierry finally offers. Claudine just exhales as if exhausted by the mere prospect of moving from her perch. Jean-Laurent flicks ash into an ornately carven onyx ashtray. His smile doesn’t change.
The convention for centuries had been to marry second or third cousins, sometimes at one generation’s remove as long as the age gap were not too great. The matching of first cousins was frowned upon unless absolutely unavoidable, while brother-sister marriages were utterly taboo. Despite the increasingly tangled bloodlines in the family over the last few generations, the three of them present that vile, beautiful evening appeared to have escaped any particularly severe congenital folly or psychic damage. At least, that had been the case until Thierry, the damned bloody fool of the century, had read the play script that lunatic had written. The very play script about the very curse that had followed their House for centuries, millennia, chipping away at it bit by bit as it underwent chromosomal decay both despite, and because of, the paranoiac desire to preserve it. Thierry’s older and marginally wiser cousins had been furious of course, and confiscated his copy immediately, but he was sure each of them must have read at least some of it in private. It was from around that time that all of them had begun to exhibit the sure traits of incipient madness, anyway. And by far the worst incident so far had occurred last night, following their hashish debauch on the trellised roof garden of Les Quatre Vents.
Thierry cannot bear the tension any longer and gets unsteadily to his feet. His blood feels viscous and his head is swimming; he stumbles over to the kitchen for a glass of water. The images seared into his stoned brain the night before flash unbidden behind his swollen eyelids. Fuck it, she should be his! There was no alternative, surely? His union with Claudine was inevitable and the fact that her prick brother knew this just made it that much worse. For the seventh or eighth time he seriously considers going straight for the revolver he has stashed in a shoebox under his bed.
The cold and curdled hatred he feels now had been a fresh, hot fury last night when he’d sat there in Les Vents, watching his cousins flirt and laugh with a more than siblingly affection, and when Jean-Laurent’s hand had reached down between Claudine’s stockinged thighs as he’d whispered in her ear, causing her to shriek with narcotized hilarity, Thierry had downed his drink and stormed off into the night, weighing up whether he should try to find a whore (and face his customary self-loathing in the morning, in addition to the loathing he already felt for his cousins) or simply find another bar and drink himself into surly oblivion.
In the end he’d done neither of those things, and merely wandered aimlessly around the neighbourhood in the sweltering heat and humidity of the night, a reverse flâneur paying no attention whatsoever to his surroundings as he brooded bitterly on the situation.
It was about an hour later when he’d returned to the apartment and ascended the rickety elevator original to the belle epoque tenement building. Of course he was fervently hoping his cousins had gone to bed – each in his or her own bed – but frankly he was almost beyond caring, as long as he didn’t have to watch them carrying on their revolting intrigue.
Finding the front door still ajar while he fumbled for his key, his heart had leapt in his throat as he’d made his way through the hallway and heard frantic whimperings and sighs that were unmistakably Claudine’s. Scarcely daring to keep his eyes open, he’d pushed the door to the salon and in a blinding moment of revelation had taken in the vista that had refused to leave his mind’s eye ever since: Claudine, perched on top of the couch, naked from the hem of her chiffon blouse to the tops of her stockings and with her legs widely splayed, one hand thrown back against the windowpane to steady herself while the other directed Jean-Laurent’s head as he knelt before her with his hands grasping her thighs, her great wedge of dark fur clearly visible whenever his red-blond mop – so despicably like Thierry’s own – moved slightly to one side or the other.
And even this scene might not have been too much to bear, in the long run, had Claudine not at that moment opened her lovely doe eyes a fraction in the midst of her panting ecstasy, looked straight at her cousin, given him a wicked smile and then winked.
Thierry prevaricates for a moment in the kitchen as he pours water down his throat like his life depends on it. The logistics and mechanics of murder pass through his mind once more. Could a life in jail really be any worse than this hell? Or should he simply complete the task by spending the last bullet on himself?
Just then, the tension is relieved somewhat by a tinny electronic fanfare within the salon. Thierry shakes himself out his calculations and trudges back to the others to see what’s going on. Claudine has finally uncurled herself from her sphinx-like pose to reach for her phone on the glass-topped coffee table in front of the couch. It’s obvious from her expression that she hasn’t been expecting a message – but then, for these three, it could well be that the rest of the world ceased to exist some time ago.
“Huh, that’s weird”, she volunteers, eventually.
“Hmm?” offers Jean-Laurent, appearing to come to life for the first time that day.
“This message. Look. A weird picture and the space where the sender’s name or number should be is just blank.”
Even Thierry’s baleful loathing is, for the moment, overcome by curiosity. The two men go over to Claudine and lean in to see the screen on her phone: she’s right, there’s this message in her inbox which is nothing but a curiously curved and involuted yellow symbol on a black background. Just as she says, the field for sender details is utterly empty.
The three of them are shrugging and exchanging puzzled looks, the previous night’s crisis momentarily forgotten, when Thierry feels a buzzing in the right-hand breast pocket of his blazer. Reaching for his phone, he finds that he too has the same senderless picture-message; he and Claudine look instinctively at Jean-Laurent and, right on cue, his own phone buzzes and moves slightly across the coffee table. It is, of course, precisely the same text.
“OK, just what exactly the fuck is going on here”, demands Thierry, who cannot shake the conviction that this is some further trick on his cousins’ part intended to extend his already exquisite torment, despite the fact that they seem every bit as puzzled as he is.
Just then the doorbell rings. Claudine, as if lumbered with one of the tasks of Hercules, heaves herself off the couch and trudges wearily down the hallway to the front door. Thierry shoots Jean-Laurent a look of murderous suspicion, various conspiracies already starting to coalesce in his paranoid imagination. Jean-Laurent, for his part, merely looks at Thierry and smiles in his obnoxious faux-sympathetic way: he may not have any more idea than Thierry does of what’s afoot, but is nonetheless enjoying seeing the effects of yet another thing for his imbecile cousin to fret about.
But Thierry really has had enough this time. Stomping furiously to his room, he no longer cares about the weird messages or the mystery caller: revenge has become the totality of his world. Feeling the reassuringly cold and weighty metal mass in his right hand, he returns to the salon just in time to see Claudine staggering back down the hallway, her usual feline grace utterly absent. “He’s here… the King… he’s come for us… for us all…”, is all she can come out with in a tone of desperate fear before collapsing on the floor. Thierry is totally wrong-footed by this: if this is some game cooked up by one or both of his cousins for their amusement, neither of them seems terribly amused, and the object of his all-consuming desire appears to be dying before his very eyes. Jean-Laurent, smile well and truly wiped off his face, has hurled himself to the floor and is supporting Claudine while she flails and wheezes, becoming visibly weaker from one tortured breath to the next.
As if in a dream, Thierry abandons both his cousins and drags his feet down the corridor, revolver loosely hanging from the fingers of his right hand. Jean-Laurent, by now collapsed in sobbing misery at the prospect of losing his sister-lover, the one thing he still had to live for, is shaken out of this state by the shocking low moan from Thierry as he sees who, or what, has come to call. Letting Claudine’s now utterly inert form fall from his hands, he too stumbles mechanically up the corridor and soon sees his cousin’s body, the face contorted into the same rictus of terror as Claudine’s. But it is the figure he sees in the doorway that finally does it.
Jean-Laurent spins about on his heel, gasping for breath and knowing that all he can hope for now is to seek an end less frightful than that which has claimed Claudine and Thierry. With this purpose in mind, he reaches down for the revolver that has fallen from his cousin’s limp fingers, presses it to his temples and in the end denies the King quite the complete victory he would otherwise have had over the last scions of the Hyades.
But however you look at it, it was the King who won that day. A microscopically fine dust, golden yellow in colour, covered everything in the apartment, including the three bodies; one dead from an obviously self-inflicted cranial gunshot wound and the other two from a cause no pathologist could formally name, but which looked a great deal like death from sheer fright or sorrow. The yellow dust refused to yield its composition to the most advanced and penetrating analyses available to forensic science.
Of involvement by any other party, there was no sign whatsoever.