Marlene was inventorying the contents of her swag bag—a decent haul, the sort she could re-gift during the holidays but would most likely flog for a profit through online auctions. “What, love?”
“These new fashionistas. The other night, one of them confronted me at that dimwit Oscar’s party. I ran him through with the old, cold steel devotchka in the back bedroom where Oscar keeps his… you know. Not a speck of blood.”
Makeup, fine chocolates, and a pen encrusted in amethyst crystals. Marlene looked up to see Rasputin Cleary’s eyes wide with worry, his swag bag still on the floor, untouched. For a moment, with rent soon due, she considered pilfering his goodies and doubling her score.
“When you say you cut one of these fashionistas, I assume you mean with your column,” she said. “Or your tongue.”
Razz blinked and reached into the lapel pocket of his stylish Javier Castijo jacket. “No, I mean with Big Daddy.” He thumbed the release on the switchblade, and its lethal point sprang forth, slicing through the air with a sharp musical note.
Marlene gasped. “You didn’t, Razz!”
“I did. Right into his smarmy face, because I knew that he knew that I knew.”
“About them. There’s more of them prancing around at these bloody events than before, with their beautiful faces and haute couture—they think we’re all stupid, all sheep. Honestly, with so many ahhhssholes around me, I feel more like a proctologist than a top fashion writer. But I showed him. Only, they don’t bleed. There’s nothing inside except for dust. Also…”
Returning Big Daddy to his pocket, Razz loosened his plum paisley ascot enough for Marlene to see the purple welt around his throat.
“Oh, Rasputin,” Marlene said, all thoughts about swag and another looming eviction notice forgotten.
He laughed, but the sound lacked all humor and met Marlene’s ear as crazy in its delivery. “You think one of those bloodless fashionistas is the first angry clothes horse to try and choke the life out of Rasputin Cleary?”
“Whatever did you do?”
“Pushed him out the window, nineteen floors up. Sent him to that big Parisian atelier in the sky. Except… ”
The lights above the runway dimmed. Music thumped, announcing the show had begun. Razz leaned closer and spoke into her ear. “When I made it down to the street, what I found looked like a paper doll. Two-D. Flat. Dusty, but no blood.”
Razz settled back in his seat. The first model stomped across the catwalk clad in a matte-and-shine lavender octopus dress that sent many in the audience into fits of wild applause, religious hysteria, and, Marlene assumed by the familiar howls, faked orgasms. Twenty minutes later, the showing by Jean-Hugo Purfoy concluded with a menswear look—an oversize heavy coat in darkest green over a basic T, matching hunter trousers, and green combat boots. The coat was structured front and back, like armor. Like a shell.
The turtle Gamera walked last night’s Purfoy runway, Razz declared in his column the following morning.
And that column would be his last.
I should have stayed in Monte Carlo, she emoted in silence while listing her latest trinkets for auction.
The phone rang. She checked the caller I.D. and the number came up as ‘private’. Scowling, Marlene answered. “Razz, is that you?”
“Where have you been? Naughty, you not returning any of my calls.” Desperation nudged aside pride. “I wonder, might you be feeling guilty enough to help me out again? I know you’re not an ATM, but a thousand should suffice until… Razz?”
The caller hung up. A text came in, the sender also unidentified.
Join me at the Harp tonight at 10, it read.
The Harp was another of the city’s former elaborate cathedrals, sold off by the church to cover its most salacious legal woes. Developers had purchased the place and transformed it into an A-list destination for party desperates and fashion shows. Razz had invited her there once to take in Jeter Diletti’s fall collection. The canapés and cocktails had been exquisite, the swag even better—Diletti’s line, not so much.
Heavy, brocaded burlap straight jackets, Razz had described them in his column.
She called his cell again. This time, a recording came on, and a robotic woman’s voice told her the number was no longer in service. So, Razz had changed his line? Fine, but she’d flay his hide if he had the nerve to block his new number the next time he called.
She hailed a taxi and rode the nine blocks to The Harp, which was lit brighter than on any church holiday from its past. Music pounded behind the stained glass windows, something industrial she was sure qualified as a sin in the eyes of its former occupants. Funny, Marlene thought, how the pious always see the crimes of others but never their own wrongdoings.
Razz was missing, and someone had invited her to a happening at one of fashion’s greatest houses of worship.
They don’t bleed, she remembered while gliding up the ancient granite stairs and into a debauched party straight from one of Hell’s numerous rings.
Wait staff dressed in red cat suits swept the main hall, their trays bearing drinks and finger pastries. Dozens of bodies gyrated to the rhythm on a makeshift dance floor beneath somber sconces and a wrought-iron candelabrum from which numerous strands of fairy lights had been strung. The air stank of cannabis and a mix of scents that cost hundreds per tiny bottle—Dior, Verdigris, and other Houses of Pretension all playing together but not necessarily playing nicely.
It was the sort of gathering that Razz would invite her to attend and likely carp about in his next column. She accepted a glass from a waiter with plump lips and a dimple. The champagne was top shelf, delicious. While taking silent inventory of faces, many Marlene recognized, she noted that the one she wanted to see most wasn’t there.
Rasputin Cleary had been a decent friend. Though she knew he’d taken pity on her when her standing in society crumbled, he never treated her like a has-been, always as a trusted confident. She had to admit she hadn’t exactly honored him in kind. When he spoke, Marlene heard maybe half of what he said. Until he talked about bloodless fashionistas, that was. In spite of the heat, the sweat pulsing over The Harp’s main hall, a sudden chill gossiped over her flesh.
Don’t bleed. Hurled out a window on the nineteenth floor. Private phone numbers.
The desire to gulp the flute’s contents tempted her, but Marlene ignored it. She cut through the exclusive crowd to a corner where pews from the old cathedral had been outfitted with tufted cushions. The pulsing, pumping drumbeats took a brief interlude. She withdrew her compact and pretended to fix her makeup, but instead scanned the vicinity.
Something in a caftan with a blank expression sidled over to her. “Is this pew taken?”
“Depends,” Marlene said. “Who are you wearing?”
“Next season’s Uri Hagenfeld,” the woman said.
Marlene offered a tip of her chin. “I’ll allow it.”
The woman sat, fixing her with a look from eyes that never once blinked. A frisson of fear slithered over Marlene’s epidermis. Facing her new friend directly, she saw that Hagenfeld Caftan wasn’t merely beautiful but stunning to behold, one of those faces you can’t stare at directly for long—like the noontime sun, after a few seconds you’d go blind.
The stranger’s gaze lay heavily on her. “I want your body.”
Marlene tisked, broke away from the woman’s gaze with an effort and deflected back to the little mirror. “You can want until Cocoa Chanel herself crawls out of the grave and back onto the catwalk. Isn’t going to happen, sister—I don’t swing that way.”
Though righteous in its delivery, the statement wasn’t exactly truthful. There had been that time during Marlene’s brief attempt at a college education in an exclusive all-girl’s school. And when she’d dated Chris, who had one of those perfect beards—only after their clothes had dropped along with inhibitions did Marlene realized ‘Chris’ was really a ‘Christine’ hopped up on heavy doses of testosterone.
“You don’t understand,” Hagenfeld Caftan said. “All that internal material gets scooped out after the deal is made, including the naughty bits.”
“Um,” Marlene said. She snapped the compact shut and focused on the other woman. Beautiful, yes. But also stiff. Some disconnected register in Marlene’s consciousness noted that, in addition to not blinking, the Hagenfeld Caftan didn’t seem to draw breaths.
One of Razz’s fashionistas?
“Do you bleed?” Marlene asked.
The woman’s mouth twisted into an approximation of a maniac’s smile with an inelegant creak, like sofa leather protesting beneath a big butt. “Not in this body,” she said. “Not in the others in my closet. If you sell me yours, I’ll wear it with attitude on red carpets and at industry events. Until it falls out of fashion, of course… but you know how styles come and go and then cycle around to being in vogue once again.”
Marlene rose swiftly. “You, madame, are fruitier than edible underwear,” she said, and marched away. Razz was right, she thought as the music resumed its subwoofer beat.
A trio of hot male youths in vinyl pants, combat boots, and little else gyrated together at the outer orbit of the dance floor. “Hey, gorgeous, want to dance?” asked one with his hair dyed cotton candy blue as Marlene navigated past them.
She readied to fire back something witty, only Marlene saw the private dancer’s chest glistened with sweat and heaved with respirations. Her scowl loosened. “Maybe another time, kitten.”
“Meow,” he said and faked scratching at her with a paw.
So some of the crowd was normal—at least human, her inner voice corrected. But the ranks of the glitterati had been infiltrated with worse agents than fallen royalty, disgraced former A-list celebrities who’d plummeted halfway down the alphabet. And the nouveau-poor pretending they were still nouveau-riche and wearing last season’s styles or—horrors!—sad rags from two seasons back.
Razz. They’d gotten to him, she was sure. Whoever these ferocious fashionistas were, Marlene knew they were responsible for her dear friend’s radio silence. Had the Hagenfeld Caftan sent her the text? She didn’t think so.
Outside the desecrated bathrooms, where any number of unholy acts were likely being committed, two more zombies in expensive couture appeared, blocking her path. One was a dark-skinned demigod dressed in a ribbed men’s tuxedo shirt, an ochre jacket with long tails, and a matching skirt that reached down to the tops of his ankles. The other man had porcelain skin and wore a samurai-inspired ensemble done in a pink cherry blossom print.
“I’d like to buy you off the rack,” the samurai said. “I have the perfect Donna Shirraz scarf to compliment that face.”
“I’ll pay you twice what he offers,” the dark demigod said. “And I’ll even wait longer than the customary two months to take possession.”
“Take this,” Marlene said and held up both middle fingers.
The two fashionistas fixed Marlene with icy stares.
“Someone will get to you,” the samurai said.
She forced her way through them. The wall of muscles she expected wasn’t there. The men parted, feather-light against her push. The sensation that slithered up her wrists was cold, strange, like touching fine silk or antique lace, a kiss of something only half there.
She slipped behind a stall door and latched it, but she didn’t have to pee and just sat atop the toilet seat, staring at the door but seeing something else.
“What are they?” she asked, her voice barely louder than a whisper. “Ghosts? Aliens? Big government?”
A knock sounded on the other side of the door.
“Ocupado,” she snapped.
The knock sounded again.
“Are you friggin oblivious?” She stood and tore open the door, her anger cooling as the view of who waited outside registered.
It was Rasputin Cleary, looking better than she’d ever seen him.
His hair was slicked back and cut into an asymmetrical bob, all of those wiry middle age eyebrow hairs plucked and tamed, and he wore a crisp suit, something impeccable from one of your finer leading men’s houses, Juan-Ringo Guillermo or Ambrose Rose.
“Razz,” she gasped.
She reached for him but caught herself. The rush of relief died. Razz didn’t blink, didn’t breathe, and she was fairly certain after she remembered the Glock in her clutch that he wouldn’t bleed, either.
“I think it’s time we talked,” the imposter wearing Rasputin Cleary said.
“You are wondering, I suppose?” the imposter asked.
“About a lot of things. First, who are you?”
“Me or us?”
The thing with Razz’s expressionless face studied her, and how it felt like she was being ogled, undressed by those unblinking eyes. “We’re consumers with upscale taste, just like you.”
She shivered. “You’re nothing like me.”
“No, I suppose we aren’t.”
Marlene settled back and pursed her lips. “Apparitions? Extraterrestrials?”
“We prefer ‘non-corporeal entities’.”
“Corporals? This is some kind of invasion?”
Its eyes rolled, marbles in a plastic face. “Cor-por-eal, darling. It means we don’t have physical bodies like you. Our anatomies are energy-based.”
“Sorry, the music,” she said. The drivel being pumped out of the sound system had grown particularly runny. “Are there many of you?” she asked.
It preened the way a bird preens, expressionlessly. “We are an exclusive set.”
“Fashionistas,” she said.
“Furriers is a more accurate term.”
She choked on that. “You wear us like furs?”
The imposter’s eyes widened—and again that action, simple on the living, looked overly exaggerated and grotesque on one of them. “You understand! Which is why I’m in a position to offer you a windfall in exchange for your body. I can grant you ample time to enjoy the spoils before taking possession. A body like yours will remain stylish for many seasons. Together, we’ll attend the finest parties, the most exclusive lunches and launches. You’ll have no financial worries after we complete the design process.”
“Design?” She huffed. “You’re not talking smocking, shirring, or top-stitching me. You’re planning to scoop out my ovaries, guts, and insides. Is that what you did to Razz? The real Rasputin Cleary?”
The imposter’s eyelids fluttered, and Marlene swore she heard them click between the plop-plop melody of the loose bowel music. “Rasputin Cleary found out about us and threatened to expose us in his column. We had no choice.”
“But you do, and we would like your answer.” A smirk that would have been smug on a living person’s face pushed at the imposter’s. Crooked, it exposed too much lacquered pink gum. “I’ll remind you that should you say no to us, we can take possession without compensation, as we did this body. The choice is yours.”
“Some choice. How much?” He made his case at seven figures. “When?”
“I’ll grant you four months—which is the best anyone will give you.”
“And where exactly will the ‘design’ take place?”
The imposter rattled off an address. Marlene connected dots. That was the Blayne Building, where the offices of the Fashion Designers Council were housed.
“What say you?” asked Razz’s face, breaking her chain of thought.
Four months for a fortune, or nothing at zero notice. “I say you can transfer the money over to my account right now.”
The imposter withdrew a phone, an odd-looking model, and tapped buttons. Actual buttons! On a phone! “Rasputin had your bank information in his cell from the many times he paid your rent. And done.”
Marlene opened her clutch for her own phone, unlocking it with her fingerprint, her free hand remaining inside. It only took a moment to check her account, and at the sight of all the zeros she smiled.
“A pleasure doing business with you,” she said. And then she brought out the Glock and fired, blasting off the imposter’s forehead.
A plume of dust puffed out of the opening and dispersed as the tragic models panicked and ran. The rest of Razz’s scooped, stitched, and shellacked exterior slumped and crumpled, reminding Marlene of the paper dolls with tab dresses she used to play with in those early years, back home at Daddy’s mansion.
Stacks of hundred-dollar bills covered the bed, the top of the dresser, and the dressing table, whose triptych of mirrors reflected one last glimpse of her looking fresh and fabulous.
“With wools, you wash them in hot water so they shrink. With fine fabrics, you deprive them of dry cleaning or the delicate cycle.”
She pulled the scissors from beneath the Benjamins and held them like a weapon. “In other words, you rough things up.”
In the next day’s fashion pages, the main subject of interest involved the latest in a long line of fallen, once-beautiful style icons—Marlene March, nee Schmottlak. She was spotted entering the Blayne Building in the heart of the fashion district, carrying of all things a big jug of bleach. The accompanying snapshots showed the one-time heiress, socialite, and former ‘It’ girl in a ratty secondhand coat, dirty mom jeans, and sneakers full of holes, her luscious mane of hair chopped off in jagged clumps.
No place for the likes of that in a business where everyone was so full of themselves.
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