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Mackie

Loki – Family Ties

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“Oh my God, Anya! Where did you find that?”

 

Christine was gazing through the glass wall of the upstairs office, looking down at the artful array of half a dozen more or less bare bodies around the pool. In a scene resembling a high-gloss magazine spread, the immaculately styled and carefully oiled girls on the white lawn chairs and sunbeds all were different interpretations of physical perfection, displayed in the gold and turquoise setting of the sunlit pool area .

 

In the back of the room where she was mixing two Red Mexicans, Anya smiled with satisfaction and replied, “The redhead? Stunning, isn’t she? Philip found her, in Manchester of all places, and had the good sense to send her over right away. Huge potential, don’t you think?”

 

“Amazing potential, without a doubt …”, replied Christine, her eyes still on the poolside scene. “But I’d call that a blonde, and there’d have to be some serious shaving and waxing, not to mention a haircut, before you could put him on a catwalk.”

 

The silver barspoon clattered on the granite worktop as Anya looked up sharply. Both glasses in hand, she came across the room to the window and stared down into the garden, her carefully made-up face holding a dark frown as she handed her friend the drink with less than her usual grace.

 

Christine looked from the Red Mexican to the pool, and back at Anya’s face; then, with a tiny smile, she sipped on her drink, and remarked, “Not your usual style, is he?”

 

Anya flicked her hair back as far as it was allowed to be flicked at all, considering the precise cut and careful grooming. Then she fluttered a perfectly manicured hand in a slightly helpless gesture, and said softly, “Weirdly enough, style didn’t come anywhere into the equation. – Yes, you do not have to spell it out,” she continued, one hand out to stop Christine from saying what she clearly had at the tip of her tongue. “Shocking, I know. I didn’t think I’d ever hear myself say that, either.”

 

Christine raised her brows, and turned her gaze back to the window. Tapping the rim of her glass against her lower lip, she contemplated the poolside scene.

 

Among the group of young women down there, who had been a pageant of polite boredom ín every fashionable kind of bathing suit imaginable, there was one single man, standing rather relaxed in a spot of bright sunshine next to the pool, talking to a brunette who was directing all her attention, the full beam of a brilliantly white smile, and a carefully posed display of her cover girls assets at him. She was not the only one, either, Christine noticed. Like a magnet dropped into a pile of iron shavings, the man seemed to be the center of attention, every girl more or less subtly arranging herself to best advantage.

 

He was, thought Christine, well worth the bother. Tall and well-built, athletic, but no bodybuilder, he stood with a careless grace, not at all intimidated by the presence of half a dozen world class models. in the company of several thousands worth of designer beach garb, he was nonchalantly wearing a pair of old jeans with the legs ruthlessly cut off, and his feet were bare. There was no shirt in sight, so it was obvious that opposed to current fashion, he had not shaved his chest. He was blonde – a real blonde, Christine noticed; she had been in the business long enough to recognise a dye job. This was the real thing – no real haircut, though, or if it had been once, that was several months past.

 

His style was yelling “no model”, but his face was of the kind every model scout had down pat as a blueprint – high cheekbones, clearly defined jaw and chin, a straight nose, well-cut mouth, clear eyes under arching brows … The three day stubble didn’t hurt his looks any, but neither did it hide the fact that the guy was more than just attractive. Christine sipped on her Red Mexican, and her tongue flickered over her lower lip as she stood contemplating her friend’s latest acquisition.

 

Her observations were interrupted by a hiss, and when she looked at Anya, she saw her staring through the window, gnawing on her perfect nails.

 

“I told him not to go down to the pool today,” Anya said under her breath, more to herself than as part of the conversation.

 

“Well, he clearly does not mind that stricture,” Christine said, slightly puzzled by Anya’s uncharacteristic behaviour.

 

“No!” Anya’s glass landed on a side table with a harsh clang, set down with unnecessary force. “He doesn’t mind a thing unless it happens to coincide with his own plans.”

 

“Ah …” Christine scrutinised her friend’s face. “And you put up with that for exactly which reason …?”

 

Anya laughed, not wholely joyfully.

 

“Look at him, Chris. Trust me – no deceptive packaging there. And he is not only looking that good – he is all you can ever want, in bed.”

 

“But outside of it he is less than perfect, I take it.”

 

“Well …” Anya shrugged, and continued with a crooked smile, “He just doesn’t give a damn about … just about anything. He loves food, and sex, and things like sailing, and motorbiking, and … oh, all kinds of real physical things. He is a lot of fun when he wants to be. He is easily bored with anything he considers not “real”, though, like art, or socializing … And when he is bored, he just wanders off, after saying just that in so many words. He is nothing if not outspoken.”

 

“Oh dear …” Christine laughed. “Not the perfect companion for a vernissage in Midtown, then, or dinner with important clients …”

 

Anya sighed.

 

“Trust me, he has put me through more embarrassing situations these past weeks than I care to remember.”

 

“Where did you find that flawed gem, then?”

 

Suddenly Anya turned away, avoiding her friend’s eyes.

 

“He was hitch-hiking.”

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Christine stared. “Anya! You are not telling me you picked up a hitch-hiker?”

 

“No! I didn’t!”

 

Christine eyed her sternly, her brows all the way up.

 

“Well, I met him at a gas station. And it was raining!”

 

“That,” said Anya’s friend, “doesn’t change a thing.”

 

“It did, too,” Anya gave back defiantly. “He was all wet. You could see that gorgeous body under his soggy clothes.”

 

For a few heartbeats the women were staring at each other – then they both started to laugh. Shaking her head, Christine finally asked, “Did you ask him to work for you?”

 

“Of course I did,” Anya gave back. “That was my pick-up line. – Well,” she contined defensively, “it usually is an effective one.” She grinned. “Everybody wants to be a model, right? And with that face and body, he could be a huge success, too.”

 

“… but I take it you haven’t had a sedcard made for him yet.”

 

Anya pulled a face. “No … he laughed at me, and told me the only way for him to model would be if he was hanging dead over a fence. Trust me, that was a first.”

 

“But still, I see him standing in your garden as if he is living here.”

 

A fain blush creeping into her cheeks, Anya said, “I only offered to take him as far as into town.”

 

“Oh, I see. You just didn’t manage the remaining ten miles, yet.”

 

Anya laughed, a little self-consciously. “Well, you know how it is … we started to talk, and one thing led to another …”

 

They stood in silence, pensively eyeing the man down in the garden who was still chatting with the girls. Just when Anya was turning to Christine again, he flashed a smile at the brunette and dived into the pool so cleanly that there was barely a splash. Christine watched with keen interest as he was crawling across the shimmering turquoise expanse, and asked, “… in his jeans?”

 

“I consider myself lucky,” said Anya drily, “that he is decent enough to keep them on. That is not a matter of course, with him.”

 

Christine’s brows went up all the way, but she kept her eyes on the body in the water. He had reached the distant end of the pool now, and one glisteningly wet arm came up to punch the stainless steel button set into the tiled rim. Immediately a rushing stream of water pushed him away from the edge, and he started to swim against the artificial current, his arms and shoulders working in the jetstream of pool water, his movements fluid and effortless inspite of the speed, the blonde head coming up for air on every fourth stroke. All eyes around the pool were trained on him, but he was oblivious of the attention, enclosed in his own universe, like a tiger pacing his cage.

 

Without noticing herself, Christine sighed wistfully. “You lucky thing, Anya,” she said, “What’s his name?”

 

“His name is Loki Laufeyarsson,” her friend said, only to add with a sharp glance and a firm voice, “… but we meant to talk about the girl you found, did we not.”

 

With visible effort, Christine pried her eyes away from the pool.

 

“Yes, the girl. Right. – She is very promising, I think; I am surprised she hasn’t been picked up before, but she’s come fresh from somewhere nowhere, so I guess we have been lucky. No photos, no connections – a true ingenue.”

 

Anya’s brows pulled into a sceptical frown, and she said, “They are rather rare these days … but we’ll see about that. Very exotic name, Nseri, isn’t it? Where is she from?”

 

“Very exotic,” Christine agreed. “I have no idea where she is from, she wasn’t too forthcoming with personal details, but I thought there’d still be time for that when you decided you’re interested. Have a look at her – you’ll see she is worth your time.”

 

A couple of minutes later the man in the pool was momentarily forgotten as the girl Nseri stepped into the room. Christine, the triumphant smile of the successful hunter on her face, turned to Anya and could see that as much as she was hiding it under her model agency mask, she was impressed.

 

***

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A tall girl, Nseri stood straight as a silver birch, her skin neither tanned nor pale – just a little sun-kissed, a golden sheen on perfect peach velvet. She was wearing a simple halter top in olive, a short black denim skirt low on her hips, and flat black flip-flops, showing a lot of her perfect legs and flawless feet. Her only jewelry was a slender bracelet of dark beads, and around her neck a leather thong with a flat disc made of a dark grainy stone. She had a lot of personality – it was almost as if she was walking in a spotlight of her own.

 

Anya’s eyes widened as they took in the girl’s figure – the top was hugging her well-rounded breasts, and inspite of her slender limbs and flat stomach, the curve of her hips, and the hourglass dip of her waist, made her a lot curvier than the girls down at the pool.

 

Her hair, tied into a ponytail, was still halfway down her back, a wavy auburn mane, highlighted in gold and red in what was either a really good dye job, or an amazing gift of Mother Nature. They eyes under well-drawn brows were hazel going on green, like sun-dappled ground under old trees, and her mouth was wide, quick with a smile like just now, and without lipstick.

 

She wasn’t wearing any make-up at all, actually, which was quite startling for Anya – girls showing up for a first meeting usually tried to look their very best, and used all means they had access to to achieve that. On the other hand, she thought wryly, it was clever of the girl to show off the fact that she was near perfect without the help of cosmetics …

 

After she had examined the young woman closely for a long silent moment, Anya lifted a hand, indicating with a spiral motion that the girl should turn around. The smile on the generous mouth deepened a little, looking suspiciously ironic, but the girl obediently turned, slowly and gracefully. When her back was to Anya, something between the seam of the top and the low waistband of the skirt caught Anya’s attention, and she said sharply, “What is that on your back? A tattoo? We do not allow tattoos.”

 

The girl calmly kept turning until she was facing Anya again, and then reached for her bag to leave. Inspite of herself, Anya said, “Wait! Let me see the tattoo.” With a shrug, Nseri abandoned her bag, pulled her top up a little, and turned her back to Anya again, looking over her shoulder.

 

There it was, in the small of her back, the delicate recreation of a perfect leaf, pale green and heart shaped like the spring leaf from a lime tree, each of the fine veins drawn in a slightly darker shade of green. It wasn’t looking so much like a tattoo, but rather like a real leaf embedded under a thin layer of perfectly smooth skin, and before she knew what she was doing, Anya had reached out to run a finger over it. The skin was warm and alive under her touch, and the girl didn’t bat an eye at the touch.

 

To her own annoyance, Anya could feel a blush creeping into her cheeks; then she heard herself saying, “Well, I guess we can always cover it with make-up if we need to …”, and saw her own bafflement at this unheard-of statement mirrored in Christine’s face. Puzzled by herself, she averted her eyes and changed the topic.

 

“I am a little nonplussed by your name. Nseri – where does that come from, if you don’t mind my asking? We will need your surname, too, of course, for the paperwork.”

 

The girl smiled easily.

 

“My last name is Isladottir,” she said. “And my given name …” She laughed softly. “When I asked my mopther about it she said, Nseri is the susurrus of the Eastern wind in the dry leaves of a beechtree at dawn on an autumn morning.”

 

Anya blinked.

 

“Oh! Well … it is a very pretty name.”

 

Christine said under her breath, “It is very much a hippie colony name, too,” and the girl shot her an glance from under raised brows, and repeated, “Hippie colony?”

 

Anya convered the slightly awkward pause by saying briskly, “Would you mind waiting at the pool for a moment, Nseri?”

 

***

 

It had taken Loki almost twenty minutes to work off his restlessness in the merciless current; finally he punched the steel button to switch the machine off, and hoisted himself out of the water with the lazy grace of a big cat ready for siesta. He didn’t pay attention to the girls anymore than to the lawn furniture they were draped upon as he shook off the water and strode over to the house.

 

Just when he reached the open door, somebody stepped out of the shadows of the groundfloor living room into the bright sunshine, and Loki’s eyes widened. It was a girl – and very much more of a girl than the beauties sunning themselves around the pool. She was shaking out her long auburn hair, about to confine it into a pony tail, and she only noticed the man in front of her when she had already walked right into him.

 

With a startled gasp she stepped back, her top and skirt splotched wet where she had collided with his streaming wet body.

 

“Oh!”, she said breathlessly, “I am sorry – so clumsy of me!”

 

Loki grinned. “The pleasure was definitely all mine,” he said softly, and his eyes under lashes spiked with wetness were bright and bluegreen like the sea under a summer sky.

 

The girl smiled fleetingly as if she was barely aware of him, and walked past him to sit on an Adirondack chair in the shade of a tree.

 

Not used to being dismissed so casually, Loki stood looking after her, a small green spark deep in his eyes. Then he turned and disappeared into the house, leaving a trail of wet footprints across the hardwood all the way up to the upper floor.

 

***

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An hour later Anya found him on the patio off the upstairs guest suite, fast asleep on the sunbed in the shade of the huge chestnut tree growing in the backyard. He was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, his hair was still damp, his arm flung across his eyes. For a moment Anya stood looking down on him in silence; then, as if her gaze was a physical touch, he moved, opened his eyes, and smiled at her sleepily.

 

Without preliminaries, Anya said, “I came to ask a favour.”

 

“Hm?” His smile was not dimming, and his expression lacked the wariness most people would show at an opening like that.

 

That was, thought Anya wrily, because he would not hesitate to refuse her request if it was in any way inconvenient. In that respect Loki was very reliable indeed …

 

“You mentioned the other day that you used to work as a photographer for a while.”

 

He shrugged, and continued to look sleepy.

 

With a tiny sigh, Anya soldiered on.

 

“I’ve heard you met the new girl downstairs.”

 

No reaction, but at least he was still awake.

 

Anya pushed on. “We need a Sedcard for her immediately, but Anthony won’t be back until next week, so I am in need of a photographer – today.”

 

Was there a hint of interest in his eyes?

 

“We could get a camera from Lens For Hire right away – we only have to call them.”

 

She noticed how his smile was changing, and for a second she had the impulse to postpone the shooting until Anthony was back; then she remembered the magazine people who were supposed to turn up the next morning for a substantial booking, and decided to press on.

 

“So, what do you say? Nothing elaborate, just a couple of hours on the beach or wherever … Are you going to do it?”

 

Loki flashed her a grin, sat up, and said, “Sure. Go phone for a camera …”

 

Swallowing her annoyance at being sent on an errand as if she were a menial assistant, and not the agency’s owner, and trying to ignore the nagging voice in her head that was instantly suspicious because he was agreeing so readily, Anya bent down, kissed his cheek in a slightly possessive manner, and went to call Lens For Hire.

 

Loki stretched luxuriously, a slow grin on his face. He looked like a cat who unexpectedly found himself alone in a room with the cream pot.

 

***

 

Always pragmatic – or just lazy – Loki had chosen the wildly overgrown backlot behind Anya’s house as a location for the extemporary shooting, and here he was waiting for Nseri when Anya accompanied her out of the house.

 

Inspite of Nseri’s hesitation, Anya had insisted on at least mascara, and had applied it herself. Otherwise Nseri was all herself when she stepped into the sundappled wilderness beyond the chestnut tree, and Loki gave her a nce-over, the lazy smile still lingering on his lips.

 

When Anya introduced them to each other, the girl gave no sign of recognition, as if the collision by the pool had not happpened, and her reaction was slightly bored in a polite way.

 

“What kind of name is Loki?”, she asked, one brow rising almost imperceptibly, as if she was not really interested and already regretted the effort.

 

“My kind of name,” Loki gave back, sounding rather more testy than he had intended.

 

Anya, trying to keep the tone light, said with a smile, “Well, you both have rather exotic names – Nseri Isladottir is not a Jane Smith, either.”

 

The girl shrugged, and looked around her at the ivy-dripping shrubbery.

 

“Here?”, she asked, and Loki, a slight frown on his face, said, “Here.”

 

He managed to say it with an audible full stop; then he picked up the camera bag with the Lens For Hire logo, clearly done with introductions. Anya looked from his face to the girl’s and decided to leave them to their task.

 

When she had left, Nseri turned a full circle, and then, tilting her head a little, looked a question at Loki.

 

“I’ve never done this, so you’ll have to tell me what to do,” she said simply, and he relaxed, smiled at her, and beckoned her to follow him deeper into the lush green wilderness. The fence around Anya’s backyard disappeared behind them as they walked along a sloping trodden path winding down between small, twisted trees and lichen covered boulders, sometimes steep enough to make them grab a hold on whatever offered support.

 

Within minutes they reached the bottom of the small ravine, where a shallow but surprisingly clear brook trickled under a leafy canopy of bushes and trees. Nseri looked around and smiled.

 

“You’d never expect this so close to the houses up there,” she said. “Do you come here often?”

 

Loki laughed.

 

“I found it three days ago,” he said.

 

“Oh.” The girl stood frowning up at him. “So you do not really live up there, do you?”

 

“No,” he replied noncommittally, “not really.”

 

For a moment, the hazel eyes were staring into his face; then Nseri shrugged, and said, “And? Now what?”

 

“Stand still and let me look at you”, he said, and then he walked around her, slowly, doing just that – looking. For a moment his face was quiet – intent on just taking her in, registering the texture of her skin, the fine downy hair on her arms, the tiny mark at her collarbone, shaped like a crescent moon, the graceful pillar of her neck, the slender but very female body under her simple clothes, he was trying to find the essence of the girl, and a way to capture it into an image.

 

She stood without any self-consciousness – it even seemed as if his gaze was a beam of light, and she was basking in its warmth. When he was behind her, she could feel a fingertip lifting the hem of her top as he looked at her leaf tattoo; he didn’t remark on it, though, and there was a sudden tiny smile she folded away in her lips. When Loki stood in front of her again, she calmly returned his look.

 

“Okay,” he said eventually, “go stand in the water.”

 

Nseri’s eyes widened. “I am going to get muddy!”

 

“Yes.” He said it with the emphasis on yet another full stop, and she giggled, shook her sandals off, and waded into the narrow brook. The water was rising barely halfway up her calves, and it was cool and fresh on her skin. Standing on a boulder over the brook, Loki was looking down on her with narrowed eyes, trying to find the picture he wanted.

 

“Open your hair,” he said, “and go a few steps over there where the sun is shining through the leaves.”

 

She did as he told her, and stood in a pool of filtered sunlight, her hair streaming down her back, its rich colours glowing before the deeper shadows. Loki still frowned down on her, still not quite satisfied; then he ordered, “Get your hair wet.”

 

She opened her mouth to say something, but thought better of it, and bent over to scoop water over her head. When she straightened up again, tossing the long strands back, water was dripping on her top and skirt, running over her arms, moulding her clothes even closer to her skin.

 

“Yes,” Loki said, lifting the camera. “Good.”

 

Framed by the viewfinder, he saw her looking up at him, water trickling down her face and neck, drawing glistening trails on creamy skin; her lips slightly parted, her eyes intent, every muscle taut, her body poised as if she were about to take flight, she was a beautiful creature, barely tamed, straight from the wilderness.

 

A hint of a smile on his lips, he started shooting.

 

***

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The light outside the wall high windows had darkened to a deep cobalt when Christine knocked on the door of Anya’s study, and entered without waiting for a reply. Anya was sitting behind the huge slab of walnut wood on a sparse metal frame that was her desk, and she was staring intently at the big computer monitor.

 

She glanced up, and when she saw who it was, she returned her eyes to the screen and said, “I just got the image files back – come and help me choose the best ones for the card.”

 

Eagerly Christine pulled up a chair to sit down next to Anya. Her eyes already on the monitor, she asked, “Got the files back? What do you mean? I thought your – erm, I thought Loki took the pictures?”

 

“He did,” Anya said with an undertone Christine found hard to read. “And then he sent the camera and the card back to Lens For Hire for them to do the preliminary archive work.”

 

Christine raised her brows, looking at her friend without a word. Anya studiously kept her gaze locked on the monitor; only when the silence got a little too long for comfort, she said defensively, “Well, I did only ask for him to do the shooting …”

 

“Which, as everybody knows, includes image editing to make the pictures fit for viewing.”

 

Anya sighed.

 

“Yes, I know. But what do you expect me to do? The card was already at Lens For Hire before I realised what he had done, and I am not paying him, so I can’t fine him – or fire him, either.”

 

Christine echoed the sigh. She had a few good ideas what Anya could do, but she knew better than to keep arguing. Instead she said, “Well, let’s have a look, then …”

 

Anya clicked swiftly through the menu and started the slide show – the screen went black, and then the first photo of Nseri grew out of the dark: a blurry green and golden background with reflexes spearing off water, and the perfect face, water like dew drops on velvet skin, the eyes the center and focus of the picture, sun dapples lighting them into a symphony of hazel, amber, gold and green – the portrait of a Nature Child in perfection.

 

The sharp intake of Anya’s beath hissed over the low hum of the computer, and Christine’s mouth was an open O of surprise, but neither woman said a word. The image on the screen faded to be replaced by a slightly wider shot where the girl had her hands raised to her head, smoothing the wet hair out of her face, the rivulets of water emphasizing the fact that her wet top was clinging to her body like a second skin.

 

“I think we got quite a talent here,” Christine said slowly. “The lens certainly is in love with this girl …”

 

More pictures, different angles. Nseri among the trees, Nseri against the craggy granite of one of the boulders, Nseri with mascara running down her face in a dramatic close-up, Nseri laughing out loud among green hazel leaves.

 

“The lens,” Anya asked slowly, “or the one behind it?”

 

Christine shot a glance at her friend’s profile.

 

“Wha are you saying that? Did anything happen?”

 

“No, nothing happened,” Anya said wearily. “I am just being an idiot.”

 

With a small vertical crease of worry between her brows, Christine decided not to dwell on that, and said, “You should put him to work. These pictures are remarkable, considering it was quite the impromptu shooting.”

 

“Put him to work?” Anya snorted. “You go and try. He is not really the kind you can push any way he does not care to go. And I do not have any leverage – he is so not interested in money, or anything else that might prompt someone into a career.”

 

“What a sad waste of talent, then,” Christine said. “Well, at least you got a good first Sedcard for Nseri out of this.” Then, almost against her will, she added, “But you really should think this relationship over, for your own good.”

 

The soft chuckle from the doorway made both of them turn their heads, startled and a little guilty. Loki was standing a few steps into the room, his feet bare, his eyes dancing. He came closer, looking at Christine, and said, “Hi,” with a smile that stopped her train of thoughts for a second; then he leaned on the corner of the desk to glance at the monitor.

 

“Was that what you were looking for?”, he asked Anya in a voice bare of any anxiousness, with just the mildest interest in whether or not he had met her needs.

 

“Yes, thank you,” Anya said, keeping the reply neutral, but at the same time – and she wanted to take it back the second she said it – Christine blurted out, “They are wonderful! You shouldn’t let that talent go to waste, you know.”

 

“I don’t,” he said with a grin, “I’m just not too interested in marketing it.”

 

As she looked into those seagreen eyes, Christine wondered for how long he had been standing there, listening. She had a feeling that he understood perfectly that she was not pleased with his presence in Anya’s life, and that he was rather amused by the opposition. He had to feel very safe to take it with a grin, she thought with a chill running down her spine.

 

Then she realised she was staring at him for some time already, and noticed that he was watching her with a knowing smile. She gave herself a mental shake, returning her eyes to the monitor, but she was very aware of the man’s presence only an arm’s length away. She did not approve of him, but she would have to lie if she said she didn’t understand the attraction …

 

“Pull up a chair,” Anya said to Loki, but he replied, “No, I am on my way out. I just wanted to see if you got what you need.”

 

He stooped to kiss Anya’s cheek, and Christine noticed the surprise in her friend’s face. Then Loki was gone, and Anya’s still puzzled expression prompted Christine to say, “Very considerate, isn’t he.”

 

“No, he is not,” Anya said sharply. “He is anything but, actually. What the hell was that all about?”

 

“You tell me,” Christine shrugged. “It is your house he is living in, and your life he is messing up.”

 

With an impatient gesture instead of a reply, Anya returned her attention to the screen where more pictures of Nseri were demonstrating that the lens was indeed in love with the girl. The lens, or the one behind it … Anya’s manicured hand with the perfect nails and the tasteful and expensive rings was gripping the mouse a little harder than necessary, and Christine wanted to bite her own tongue. She was not helping here …

 

In silence, the women watched the slide show until it started all over again, and then they watched it a second time, taking notes of which pictures should go into Nseri’s first Sedcard. When Anya had flagged the chosen image files, and was preparing the print order form, Christine sat looking idly around the room. Made of concrete, glass, and wood, it was an understated and airy office for a successful business woman, with a display of huge prints of gorgeous fashion shots on the wall opposite the window, sleek furniture, and a typically tidy desk.

 

There was actually only one small stack of papers on that desk, she noticed, and it was lying where Loki had been standing earlier, bending down to kiss Anya’s cheek. These papers were containing Nseri’s preliminary contract and her personal details – and the page on top was showing Nseri’s address.

 

Christine pressed her lips into a thin line; sneaking a glance sideways at Anya’s profile, she swallowed a comment that probably would make things worse anyway. She was, after all, jumping to conclusions here …

But she was determined to keep an eye on Loki Laufeyarsson. And, she thought sourly, on Nseri Isladottir, too, which probably would be one and the same, anyway.

 

“Well,” she said, much more cheerful than she was feeling, “now that this is taken care of, why don’t we go out for dinner? I’ve heard there is a new place downtown that is almost too good to be true …”

 

***

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The small house was as seedy as the rest of the neighbourhood, the tiny frontyard just a jumble of overblown weeds with two rusty bicycle frames and a garbage bin thrown in for good measure. The front door had a window, but even if it had been clean, a shabby yellow curtain kept prying eyes out.

 

There were several names next to the doorbell button, and the scrap of paper with “Nseri Isladottir” printed on it was obviously the most recent addition, judging by the degrees of yellowing paper and peeling sellotape the others showed.

 

Loki had been ringing the bell a couple of times already, but inspite of the music, and the sound of footsteps from behind the door, there had been no response so far. His eyes narrowing a little, he put a finger on the button, leaned into it, and listened to the ring of the bell going on and on and …

 

The door flew wide, and Nseri was standing right in front of him, eyes wide, arms akimbo. She was wearing a floor length, low-cut black satin dress, and she met Loki’s eyes with the same infuriating mixture of polite boredom and indulgence.

 

“You,” she said, and the lack of interest in her voice put up his hackles immediately.

 

“Were you expecting somebody else?”, he snapped, but she cut him back to size easily, saying, “Of course not, or I would have come to the door sooner. What do you want?”

 

It was a rather unfamiliar situation, but he did not scare easily. Nseri was blocking the door, making no move to let him in, and before he could outmanoeuvre her, she asked with a frown, “How did you find me, anyway?”

 

“You left this address with Anya.”

 

Looking him up and down, Nseri said, “You do not mean to tell me Anya gave it to you, do you?”

 

Loki returned her look with raised brows. “Anya doesn’t own me,” he said nonchalantly.

 

“She seems to think she does, though,” the girl replied with a grin.

 

He shrugged. “It’s not your problem anyway.”

 

The hazel eyes stared coolly. “You mean, it is none of my business. Very true. So – why did you come?”

 

She still didn’t budge an inch, and he had no intention of pushing past her. He had a hard time to gauge her reactions; he suspected that she could start quite a riot if she felt like it, and he didn’t need one right now. So he tried to keep things easy; “You were in quite a hurry to leave, after the shooting,” he said with a smile.

 

A moment of silence as he stood waiting for a reaction; then she said impatiently, “So?”

 

He could feel his irritation gaining the upper hand; still he tried to keep his voice low.

 

“I wanted to see some more of you.”

 

“Really?” Now it was her turn to shrug.

 

“Go look at the photos, then,” she said, and closed the door in his face.

 

***

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“That dessert,” said Christine, “was the best food I have had in ages.”

 

“Yes, it was quite good,” Anya replied, a little distractedly like she had been all evening inspite of her friend’s attempts to cheer her up.

 

“Quite good? You are either insane, woman,” Christine teased her, “or you have a French chef hidden away in your kitchen you haven’t told me about yet.”

 

That at least managed to draw a smile, but within seconds, Anya’s gaze drifted out into the city night again.

 

Christine sighed.

 

“You should get rid of him, you know,” she said softly. “This cannot be good for you.”

 

Anya didn’t look at her friend when she replied, “He’ll be gone soon enough, don’t you worry.”

 

“I’m certainly not worried about him,” Christine snapped, “and I do not think it will be anywhere near ‘soon enough’ in my book.”

 

She had to stop the car at a traffic light, and tried to meet Anya’s eyes, but all she got to see was the back of her friend’s head as she continued to stare out of the window. She had rolled it down, and the fresh night air was pleasantly cool on their faces after the food and wine and the crowded restaurant.

 

“Look at those kids,” Anya said softly, not reacting to Christine’s words at all. “You’d think they’d break their silly necks every ten minutes or so …”

 

Christine realised that the lot next to the street was a skateboard park, with half and quarterpipes, ramps, banks, stairs, rails, and a huge flatground area, and inspite of the late hour a dozen or more young people practicing under the glare of the orange sodium lights, the rumble and clatter of the boards breaking up the night. She was just returning her attention to the still red traffic light when Anya suddenly sat up straight with a gasp – then she had fumbled the door open and got out of the car.

 

“Anya!” Christine threw her hands up in exasperation, then, muttering under her breath, she parked the car very illegally across the sidewalk, and craned her neck to see where her friend was going.

 

She narrowed her eyes. What was Anya looking for in a skateboard lot of all places? Had she spotted somebody promising, and wanted to give them her card? Not very probable – the light wasn’t very good, and the kids were too far away from the street to really make out their features. All she could see was a bunch of admittedly very athletic young people doing harebrained stunts on skateboards …

 

But then Christine unwittingly echoed Anya’s gasp, and leaned forward to look out of the passenger window. There was something awfully familiar about one of the skaters, about the blonde mane whipping around his head as he reached the crest of his short flight out of the halfpipe before he turned in the air, one hand on the board, to go back into the pipe and repeat it all over again on the other side.

 

With a deep sigh of frustration Christine watched as Anya walked up to the edge of the concrete and then stood following Loki with her eyes, waiting for him to notice her. She slammed a flat hand on the steering wheel with a curse – she really longed for a chance to wrap her hands around that bastard’s neck and strangle him, but for the time being she had to resign herself to waiting for Anya to come back to the car. She wasn’t her mother, after all – just a friend who hated to watch her being miserable.

 

***

 

Whether or not it really took him so long to notice Anya’s presence, Loki waited for a dozen more turns from one side of the halfpipe to the other until he finally raced the board over to where she was standing. At the very last moment he jumped down, flipping the board up and catching it with one hand as he landed on his feet. Without a greeting or an attempt to hide his irritation, he asked, “What are you doing here?”

 

“That’s what I wanted to ask you,” Anya retorted, her eyes flitting left and right, searching for anyone who might be with Loki. He noticed immediately, and his eyes grew stormy.

 

“Isn’t it pretty obvious?”, he asked, waving the skateboard before her face.

 

With a brittle laugh, Anya asked, “And since when are you skateboarding?”

 

“Since two hours,” he snapped, and turned to go back into the pipe.

 

He had been standing between Anya and the nearest of the big sodium lamps tinting the whole scene an eerie orange, outlinging Loki’s silhouette; now the light fell on his face, and Anya gasped. There was the raw patch of a fresh abrasion running from his right temple across the cheekbone and down to his jaw, encrusted with blood and looking almost black in the strange lighting. She grabbed Loki’s arm, holding him back, and asked, “What happened to your face?”

 

His left hand reaching up to touch the damage, he flashed her a grin.

 

“It took me a few tries to get it right,” he said dismissively, pulled his arm out of her grip and turned away from her again.

 

A teenager with a battered board pushed past Anya and whooshed into the pipe and up one of the ramps; standing on top, he called, “Hey, Loki, try this!”, hurling himself down into the pipe backwards to come up on the other side where he flipped over, balancing on his hands on the ledge for a second before he went back down again with a whoop.

 

Anya couldn’t understand how he could keep his feet on the board during all this, and she certainly didn’t mean to stay around and watch Loki trying. She wanted to call after him, but something in his eyes before he had turned away told her that he would not appreciate it, and she gathered what self-respect she had left, and turned to walk back to the car. Noticing the curious glances from the boys in the pipes, spins and ramps, she felt the heat rising into her face, and stiffened her spine. She would not let them see her crying. She suddenly felt really old. Nobody around here was much over twenty, if that. What was Loki doing here? She could feel her irritation rise like steam in a kettle. Couldn’t he see that he, too, was too old for this?

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Then she realised that she had no idea how old precisely Loki was, and there was a weird shifting at the bottom of her stomach when she tried to guess and found she could not. All she could say was that he was not twenty anymore; but then what – thirty? Thirtyfive? Forty?

 

This was ridiculous. She had always prided herself on her grasp of things like this, her eye for detail. It was her stock in trade. Why would somebody like Loki, who she had shared her house and her bed with for weeks now, would elude her so completely?

 

She had reached the car and turned to look back, just when Loki missed the right moment on the backflip, crashing into the concrete with an impact she could hear all the way to where she was standing. She winced, and made as if to start back, when Christine said through the open window, “Get into the car, Anya – please.”

 

Hesitating, Anya watched Loki pick himself up, shaking his head like a dog shaking water out of his fur; then he was back on the board.

 

With a shuddering sigh, Anya openend the passenger door. Christine threw her a glance sideways; then she started the motor and asked casually, “Is he coming here often?”

 

“Not that I’d know,” Anya replied, her eyes still on the halfpipe and the breakneck antics of the two figures in there. “He claims to have started skateboarding two hours ago.”

 

Her eyebrows almost at her hairline, Christine looked across the orange lit lot.

 

“Bullshit,” she said. “He looks like he’s had quite a lot of practice. My nephew is doing it, too, and he was forever working on it and falling on his face before he could even flip the board. Maybe he meant to say that he didn’t do it for a few years and picked it back up only two hours ago …?”

 

“Don’t you tell me what Loki might or might not mean,” Anya snapped. “You do not know him, after all.”

 

There was an uncomfortable moment of silence; then Christine pulled away from the curb and said quietly, “That is true. I do not know him at all. What I am wondering is, do you?”

 

But Anya had turned her head, pretending to look out of the passenger window, and did not reply.

 

***

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Handing the battered board back to the freckled kid who had let him use it, Loki said with a smile, “That was fun.” The kid grinned, tucking the spare board under one arm, and was gone, clattering down the sidewalk at top speed.

 

Standing precisely where Christine’s car had been a while ago, Loki was trying to decide what do do now when a mocking voice came from the deep shadows under the big elm trees seperating the sidewalk from the skateboard park.

 

“You shouldn’t have been so rude – now you’ll have to walk all the way home, and probably find a cold welcome, too.”

 

His head had whipped around at the first word – he stared into the shadows, but couldn’t see anyone. Then, with a soft thud, Nseri dropped from one of the branches, her teeth flashing white in the darkness as she grinned at him. Then she came strolling into the light, and Loki realised that she was still wearing the black satin dress; the hem was dragging on the ground, and her feet under it were bare.

 

Her hair was loosely swept up, several strands escaping the barrette she had used to gather it, curling on her creamy shoulders like live things, gleaming russet, auburn and golden in the street lights. She was looking like a child who had played in the dirt yard in her mother’s best dress.

 

Nseri noticed his perplexed stare, and smiled even wider.

 

“Do you like the dress?”, she asked. “It belongs to one of my house mates – I was trying on her clothes when you came by. I love it … it feels nice on my skin, you know.”

 

Loki’s bewildered gaze slowly travelled up the length of her until he met her eyes.

 

“What are you doing here?”, he asked. “As far as I remember, you shut your door in my face several hours ago.”

 

“I did,” she grinned. “And you hated it. You were looking like you wanted to break that door down – I was watching through the spyhole, you know.”

 

Staring at her with narrowed eyes, Loki asked, “Does your friend know you are parading around in her dress?”

 

“She isn’t a friend,” Nseri replied without much interest, “she just happens to live in the same house.”

 

“I bet that will make things much easier when she finds out what you did to that dress of hers,” he gave back, heavy on the sarcasm, but it was totally wasted on Nseri. She just glanced down at her bare feet peeping out from under the soiled hem, and shrugged. Then she returned he attention to Loki; tilting her head, she picked up her earlier train of thought.

 

“I really thought you’d break down that door. It isn’t a very sturdy one, you know …”

 

“Well, I didn’t,” Loki said curtly.

 

“No, indeed you didn’t, she nodded. “Very recommendable self-control. Instead you came here and started to mess yourself up,” she observed, her eyes on the raw skin on the side of his face, a slow little smile on her lips.

 

There was a spark in his seagreen eyes when he asked, “You followed me here?”

 

“I wanted to see what you were doing,” she gave back artlessly.

 

For a moment they stood facing each other in the harsh light of the street lamp, then, sketching a small wave, Nseri said, “Good night!”, and turned away.

 

“Wait!” Loki caught up with her in a few strides. Smiling into her eyes, he said, “Let me walk you home, at least.”

 

He was standing very close – not touching her, but close enough to smell the apple and bergamot scent coming from her hair, and the underlying, very female note of musk and vanilla. She looked up at him – his eyes were only a couple of inches above hers – and returned his smile.

 

“What for?” she asked. “I can find my way home.”

 

“Yeah,” he said huskily, “sure. But wouldn’t it be nice to have company?”

 

One of her bare arms reached up, and she ran her fingers through his tousled hair, and down along his neck until they rested on his shoulder. With one arm around her waist, Loki pulled her closer, conscious of her bare skin under the slinky satin. He bent his head to nuzzle her neck when her hand slid down to his chest and pushed him firmly away, and Nseri said with a short laugh, “I think you better go home right away, I’m sure Anya’s been expecting you back this past hour.”

 

She ducked out of his grasp and walked away from him. Loki, eyes blazing, was after her in a flash; this time he grabbed her arm roughly, dragging her around to face him.

 

“What kind of game is this?”, he asked, holding her in a hard grip.

 

With a cool smile, the girl said, “My game, Loki.”

 

Then, still smiling, she tried to free her arm, while Loki stood staring down at her, anger and bewilderment in his eyes like swiftly changing clouds. But before he could say anymore, he realised that a car had been creeping up on them on the otherwise deserted street, and a harsh voice asked, “What is going on here? Do you need help, miss?”

 

Loki’s head whipped around, and he saw the police cruiser and the two officers in the front seat, his face swiftly registering first anger, then annoyance until he got a grip on himself. His hand dropped from Nseri’s arm, and she took a step away from him, still smiling coolly.

 

“No, thank you very much, officer, “ she said, “my friend was just saying good night.”

 

Not sounding too convinced, the policeman asked, “Would you like a ride home?”

 

“Oh!” With a brilliant smile the girl turned to the car. “That would be so good of you.”

 

She walked past Loki, and when he hissed between clenched teeth, and too low for the policemen to hear, “Bitch!”, she shook her head in disapproval and said silkily, and equally low, “Rude, rude, rude.” Then she smiled and disappeared into the back of the car, leaving Loki on the sidewalk. He stared after the cruiser until the red taillights had disappeared around a corner; then he kicked an empty softdrink can and sent it clattering far into the skateboard lot. His fists clenched at his side, he tipped his head back and squeezed his eyes shut, forcing himself to breathe slowly, and calm down. Finally, with an involved and very colourful curse in a language nobody in this world would have been able to understand, he turned and walked into the sodium lit city night.

 

***

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It had taken Anya almost half an hour to convince Christine that she was okay, and to say goodbye in the car. Her face was hurting from the smile she had been forcing onto it, and she was feeling completely drained. She had had one rather stiff drink already, and now she was standing at the window, looking down on the driveway, trying to convince herself she was not doing so because she was waiting for Loki to turn up.

 

On the drive home Christine had pleaded fiercely that Loki was not good for her, and Anya, with no valid argument to the opposite, had remained painfully silent throughout. When they had finally reached the house, Christine, sighing in frustration, had apologised.

”I know you are a big girl,” she had said. “It is just making me so furious that … No. I promise I’ll stop now. I really don’t mean to add to your misery.”

 

It had taken all of Anya’s strength not to start crying right then, but she had managed. But as a result, she was now feeling like a train wreck, her only comfort the fact that at least the evening hadn’t cost her her oldest friend. It had been a close call, more than once.

 

Suddenly her thoughts were interrupted as she saw a car slowing down on the street. She stepped closer to the window, hoping for a cab, and Loki in it; but the headlines moved on without stopping.

 

She hit the window pane with her flat hand, biting her lips to suppress the angry sob threatening to rise; then she said out loud, “Oh, dammit! Get a grip on yourself already,” and turned away from the dark view. She would go down and swim a few laps; perhaps that would help to soothe her nerves a little …

 

***

 

Almost an hour later, Anya climbed out of the pool, her legs nearly buckling under her. She had been battling the artificial current for more than 40 minutes, and eventually the endlessly repetitive moves and the sheer physical exhaustion had silenced her thoughts, and brought on blessed numbness.

 

The night was still warm enough, but it was very late now, her house the only one in the neighbourhood with its windows still lit. Anya picked up her robe from one of the chairs, and put it on; when she turned away from the pool to go to the house, though, she suddenly hesitated, sniffing the soft breeze. There was a sweetish, slightly pungent scent on it, something she hadn’t smelled for some time. not since her college and early modelling years, to be precise …

 

She stood still, staring into the shadows under the trees where the pool lights and garden lanterns didn’t reach.

 

“Loki?”, she called.

 

Nothing. The only sound was a car moving down the street a block away; but another cloud of the spicy scent came wafting by …

 

A fresh wave of anger washed through her, and she hissed, loud enough for the immediate vicinity, but but too low for any possibly sleepless and eavesdropping neighbours, “I would appreciate it if you’d not be smoking pot in my house!”

 

A low chuckle, but still Anya couldn’t say where it came from.

 

“Fine!” she snapped, drew her robe closer around herself, and turned to go into the house, when suddenly something small landed hissing in a puddle of water right before her feet, a cigarette butt, quickly swelling with water, the paper splitting within seconds, a few shreds of tobacco spilling out.

 

Anya’s head came up, and she stared at the springboard next to the pool. At first she thought it was empty; that he had thrown the joint from somewhere else. But then an arm was dangling from the board like from a couch, fingers curling relaxedly into an empty palm, the wrist adorned with a small tattoo, and two strings of beads, one white, the other black.

 

Anya took a deep breath, trying to decide what to do, but before she arrived at a decision, the arm moved, and suddenly Loki rolled himself off the board, holding on with both hands, though, so that he ended up dangling seven feet above the pool. He was wearing the same jeans and t-shirt he had been wearing at the skateboard park, but his feet were bare now.

 

He was swinging back and forth a few times, and Anya stood with her head tipped back, watching. Then he let go, and crashed into the water with a whoop, the resulting splash soaking Anya’s robe thoroughly.

 

She gasped, and jumped back – too late, of course, to escape the unwelcome shower. Sputtering and furious, she wiped water out of her eyes; but if she had expected Loki to come out of the pool now, she found herself mistaken. It took her a moment, but then she saw that he had swum over to the other side, and was crawling easily, the current cranked all the way up. He clearly had no intention of confronting her any time soon.

 

Fuming, Anya marched around the pool and used her bare foot to stomp on the stainless stell button and shut off the current. The pressure of the water suddenly gone, Loki collided with the pool side, cursed, and held on to the tiled rim with one hand, glaring up at the woman. But his glare changed into a grin, and then he hoisted himself out of the water and stood in front of her, his stance relaxed, his arms loose at his side, his expression neither contrite nor aggressive, but rather mildly amused in a detached way. “What?”, he asked.

 

“Where have you been?” asked Anya, forgetting all her intentions about being cool, and subtle.

 

“Up there,” he said, tilting his head in direction of the springboard.

 

“No,” Anya hissed, “earlier tonight.”

 

Loki sighed.

 

“Skateboarding?”, he replied tentatively, as if he was trying his best to humour her, but wasn’t really sure what it was she wanted to hear.

 

“No!” Anya had to hold onto herself not to stamp her foot. “Before that!” And without giving him an opportunity to answer, she went on, “Did you go to see Nseri?”

 

She knew he resented the question as his eyes narrowed, and his smile froze.

 

“Yes,” he said coolly, “I have.”

 

Anya gasped as if he had poured ice water over her. It was one thing to know, and another altogether to be told in so many words. Her lips went numb as her face drained of blood.

 

“And you think you can come back here like nothing happened? I can’t believe you have the gall to run after that girl, and then come back. Do you think this is a hotel? Do you think I’m a fool?”

 

Her voice was skipping an octave, but Loki was keeping his cool. Flicking his dripping hair out of his eyes, he stood looking at her for a few heartbeats – then he said, “No. I don’t think you’re a fool.”

 

Then he simply walked past her and into the house, and Anya stood with her mouth open and nobody to yell at. She could feel her blood rushing back into ther head, leaving her flushed and with a dawning headache, and she took a deep breath, and followed Loki. She would not let him off the hook so easily – she would force him to talk this out right now. It was important to not let him distract her, though, so she’d better put a few clothes on first …

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When she came into the double height living room and started up the stairs to the upper floor and her bedroom, she was surprised to see Loki coming down again already. He had changed into dry clothes – jeans and t-shirt again, inspite of her gifts of Armani jackets and Boss suits – and over his shoulder he had the black leather jacket she had given him. He hadn’t taken the tme to towel his still dripping hair, and the shirt had damp spots, too, where the wetness of his skin was soaking through it. What seemed most ominous, though, was the fact that he was wearing his boots.

 

Anya hesitated at the bottommost step and asked sharply, “Where are you going?”

 

His only response was a shrug as he stood looking down on her; then he flicked a finger against her cheek in a weirdly tender gesture, and said, “Bye, Anya …” He was past her and down the stairs before she really registered what was happening; then she started after him, crying, “No! Wait! Where do you think you are going? You can’t even check into a hotel, you don’t have any money!” She had reached him, and grabbed his arm in a desperate hold.

 

His green eyes flashed at her face, and then looked down on her hand on his arm. “Don’t,” he said calmly, and her heart sank.

 

“You cannot just walk out on me like that,” she said in a rush, and she scared herself with the pleading in her voice. “Come back upstairs and let’s talk about it, okay?”

 

Loki didn’t move; he said, “There really isn’t anything to talk about.”

 

The grip on his arm didn’t loosen, and Anya’s eyes were suspiciously bright when she pressed on.

 

“Please do at least explain,” she said, and Loki sighed.

 

Taking that as a sign that he was giving in, Anya let go of his arm, and indeed he did not bolt, but said, “I’ll be right behind you,” waving a hand in direction of the ground floor guest bathroom. Then he ruffled her wet hair, and turned to open the bathroom door.

 

“Yes, of course,” Anya said, good manners kicking in immediately, but she stood watching until the door had closed behind him. Slowly she walked up a few steps. Was he just waiting for her to be out of sight, so he could go and walk out the front door without a scene?

 

She stopped halfway up the stairs. He could leave the bathroom only through this door – it was windowless. She would wait for him to come out to make sure he didn’t get away unseen.

 

She waited.

 

She shifted her weight from one bare foot to the other, getting chilly in her soggy robe, and dripping water on the hardwood.

 

She sat down on the stairs, wrapping her arms around herself for warmth.

 

When she realised her teeth were chattering with the chill, she got up abruptly. What in hell was she doing? Had she gone completely nuts now?

 

She stormed down the stairs and knocked on the bathroom door.

 

“Loki? What are you doing in there?”

 

Silence.

 

“Listen, this is really ridiculous. Come out of there – we’ll just talk, okay?”

 

Nothing.

 

“Okay, or we don’t talk, if you are so adverse to the idea. Just come out. Please?”

 

She put her ear against the red door, but there was not a sound from the other side.

 

Her lips pressed into a thin line, she knocked again. Then, calling, “I am coming in now!”, she pushed at the door, and it opened.

 

The spacious white and steel bathroom was tastefully lit, spotlessly clean, and completely empty. The only person she could see was herself, reflected in the floor-length mirror next to the Philippe Starck bowl sink.

 

There was no place where a grown man could be hiding, but Anya looked anyway. Finally, when she had even pulled the luxurius red towels out of their stainless steel rack, scattering them all over the dark wooden floor, she stood staring at her reflection, miserably sure that Loki had gone. The disturbing fact that he could not have left without walking right past her, was registering only dimly; what really hit with hard finality was that he was gone for good.

 

She met the eyes of the woman in the mirror, the damp hair wild around her face, and she saw the face crumpling up just before her tears were blurring the image to much to see anything at all.

 

***

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Loki stepped out of the mirror and found himself in the small and cluttered hallway of Nseri’s house. Behind one of the closed doors music was playing on high volume, and through one of the open doors he could see a kitchen, the neon light showing a sink full of dirty dishes, and a livingroom, the mute tv flickering pale before an emtpy and ill-matched group of armchairs and a couch.

 

There was nobody to be seen, and Loki had no clue which room might be Nseri’s, or if she was even at home. Just having gotten out of one scene, he wasn’t too keen on provoking another one, particularly not with a total stranger if he guessed wrong and landed in the room of one of Nseri’s house mates … Silently he approached the door the pulsing beat was behind, and stood listening for a moment.

 

Then a voice came from the back of the house, carrying effortlessly inspite of the closed doors – the place was probably built of cardboard, considering the lack of soundproofing. Which was actually what the unseen shouter was complaining about, his voice laced with the angry frustration of fruitless repetition.

 

“Damn it, Nseri!” he roared, “turn the fucking stereo down!”

 

Loki smiled. One riddle solved, then …

 

He knocked on the door, loud enough to be heard over the meandering bass lines.

 

“Coming!”, Nseri trilled, and indeed, she opened the door, saying, “Calm down, Nick – I did turn it down, twice already!”

 

Then she finally looked at the man in front of her and realised it was not her irate housemate, and for a moment she seemed at a loss.

 

“Hi,” Loki said with a grin.

 

Nseri was wearing a t-shirt, panties, and nothing else. The room behind her held a mattress, a few clothes on the floor, the stereo, and a few empty pizza boxes.

 

Loki took a step closer, and Nseri woke from her stupor.

 

“You again,” she said, her voice a weary sigh of frustration. Then she slammed the door, and Loki heard a key turning.

 

His eyes narrowing in anger, his hands curling into fists, he took a deep breath, and seemed about to knock again, but then he turned away from the door. Behind him the volume of the rock song was raised another notch, the flimsy house fairly shaking with the drums. Suddenly the door at the rear of the hallway crashed open, and a good looking young man wth the body of an athlete came stomping out. His face an angry purple, he stormed up to Nseri’s door, not even checking his approach when he saw a stranger standing in front of it. He pushed past Loki, banged his fist on the door, and yelled, “Nseri! Turn the goddamn stereo down, or there will be bloodshed!”

 

There was no response, just the music pounding on. Nick rattled the door handle, and finally kicked the door frame in frustration. Turning away, he finally took notice of Loki.

 

“Who are you?” he asked, and without waiting for a reply, “Are you here for the Bitch from Hell? Don’t, man. That girl is bad news. Just get out of here and run, and give a prayer that you made it out alive.”

 

Loki raised his brows. “That bad?”, he asked with a smile.

 

“Worse,” Nick said. “She moved in three days ago, and already two of us are looking for another place. Tomorrow that’ll be three – I haven’t had a night’s sleep since she moved in, I have an audition tomorrow, and I look like 45 going on 80. It’s a pity – I really hate violence, so my only option is leaving. Then she’ll have the house to herself – and I guess she can afford it, now that she got a contract with A-List. He looked a question. “You wouldn’t happen to know an inexpensive place with a vacancy, would you?”

 

“Sorry,” Loki said, “I’m just passing through, really.”

 

“Ah well.” Nick’s shoulders raised and fell in a frustrated shrug. “I’ll have to get on the phone first thing tomorrow, then. But seriously, man – don’t even touch that chick – she’s not worth the bother. Hot looks, but completely loco.”

 

With that brotherly advice, he clapped a hand on Loki’s shoulder and went back to his room, closing the door behind him.

 

With a pensive frown, Loki was standing in the hallway for a moment, the music reverberating from the flimsy walls around him. In addition, a phone in Nseri’s room had started ringing, the piercingly shrill melody going on and on, out of sync with the music, but almost as loud. Eventually Loki shrugged, and walked leisurely into the kitchen. There he opened the fridge to check an assortment of leftovers in different stages between reasonably edible and biologically hazardous; he picked a sandwich still in cling film, opened the wrapping, sniffed, and satisfied with the result of the inpection, took a bite. Before he closed the fridge, he also took a can from a sixpack beer – then he wandered out into the hallway again, stepped through the mirror, still munching, and was gone.

 

The phone behind Nseri’s door stopped ringing, only to start over again within seconds.

 

***

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Curled up in the big white leather armchair in front of the cold fireplace of her ground floor living room, in a small island of light provided by a reading lamp, Anya could see herself reflected in the night black floor-to-ceiling windows. She sat with the phone pressed to her ear, her hand almost cramping, and listened to the ringing, unanswered. Finally she pressed the stop button, and then speed dialled the number for the mobile she had given to Loki a couple of weeks ago. She had never seen him use it, but she couldn’t help herself now – it was three o’clock in the morning, and she was frantic. She listened to the beeps of the dial tone, then there was a pause, and then it started to ring.

 

There was an echo to the ringing.

 

She raised her head, tilting it as she strained to hear. Then she realised that it really was Loki’s phone ringing. In the guest suite two doors down the upstairs hallway …

 

With an angry sob she switched her phone off, and the ringing stopped. Without pausing to think Anya redialled the other number. One ringtone. Two. Then a chirpy voice said, “Yes?”

 

Startled out of her slouch, Anya sat up straight. “Nseri!”, she said, a little breathless. “I am – I have to apologise for the hour –“

 

“Who is this?” Nseri’s voice came back over the earsplitting noise of a rocksong on a stereo on full volume; she sounded wide awake, but not very interested in the late caller.

 

“This is Anya. From The A-List.”

 

“Oh! Sure. Hi, Anya.”

 

There was a pause, and suddenly Anya felt stupid and very awkward. She was calling a girl she had met only professionally, it was the middle of the night, and she was about to ask after her lover. How embarrassing can you get?, she wondered for a second, her face suddenly burning, and the impulse to hang up almost strong enough to actually do it.

 

“Yes?” Nseri’s voice came through the phone. “Is there anything you wanted?”

 

“Well …” Anya said, teetering on the brink of sanity, longing to be able to just apologise and get off the phone. Then her words rushed out before she could let her saner half take over: “Nseri, is Loki with you?”

 

There was a long silence on the other side, unless you counted the wail of the electric guitar warbling from the stereo. Then Nseri asked bemused, “Loki?”

 

“Yes, Loki. He took your pictures, remember?”

 

“Oh yes, of course I remember,” the girl said with a giggle. “But why would you think he is with me?”

 

“Never mind why,” Anya said harshly, reaching the end of her rope. “Is he?”

 

“No, he isn’t”, Nseri said, her voice still carrying a laugh.

 

Anya’s shoulders relaxed very suddenly, as if a hardened knot had been cut open, releasing her. Then the amused voice added, “At least I didn’t let him in, so I guess he is gone by now, but I didn’t check,” and Anya felt her whole body clench into a vicious coil again.

 

She switched off the hone without another word.

 

Her breath jerking painfully through her chest, she sat in her chair, curling herself around the phone as if she wanted to silence it, undoing the words she had expected and still could not bear to hear. When the phone started ringing almost immediately, she gasped, but then she pushed the button, and asked breathlessly, “Loki?”

 

For a few heartbeats there was no reply; then Christine’s voice said, “It is 3 a.m., your phone has been busy for more than an hour, and now you think it is Loki? Anya … Do you want me to come over?”

 

Her own voice choking with embarrassment and the starting flood of tears, Anya whispered, “Yes, please …”

 

***

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The location was an abandoned factory lot, red brick and corroded steel, flowering over and over with a sprouting jungle of colourful graffiti.

 

In the morning, the crew had staked out their territory with vans, pick-ups, and equipment, a futuristic gypsy camp full of tripods, scaffolding, lighting rigs and reflectors: the huddle of models made an adequate crowd in their gaudy and completley overstated clothes, outlandish make-up, and flashy dress jewelry.

 

Loki had been watching from afar for most of the day, sitting on the second floor fire escape stairs of the next door building, his feet dangling, his eyes following one particular girl around as she was sashaying through her first ever professional model job. The night before he had slept for a few hours in the all-night waiting room at the main station, and then had found out about this shooting simply by calling Anya’s secretary.

 

Nobody had noticed him so far, even though he was sitting with the sun bright upon him, and made no effort to be inconspicuous – the group down there was far too caught up in their owh little universe, and aside from that, onlookers were nothing out of the ordinary, were actually taken as their due as they went about their work in the circle of bright lights.

 

There seemed to be a pause in the frantic activities just now – the models, three girls and two boys, were retiring to the van where a group of folding chairs and and a sun shade made up a lounge area, and sat there sipping softdrinks or water, waiting their turn to be called into the van one by one to have a wardrobe and make-up change, returning as yet another incarnation of millionaire punk chic.

 

Taking care to be silent, Loki got up from his vantage point, and ran down the stairs. Then he approached the group with purposeful strides and the air of confidence, and nobody made a move to stop him as he passed through the crew setting up for what probably would be the last shot of the day. Unchallenged he reached the group of chairs, unnoticed by the occupants as they were facing away from him.

 

Nseri was already in the new outfit, a skimpy, skin-tight electric blue mini dress, a load of rhinestones flashing on neck and wristss and heavy black biker boots. Her hair was piled high on her head in deceptively artless fashion, a big glittering pin through it like an arrow, a couple of gleaming tresses falling to her shoulders and down her back. Under the envious and incredulous stares of her skinny colleagues, she was eating a huge icecream cone, effectively ruining her lipstick in the process.

 

“Do you have the faintest idea,” one of the other girls asked in a stressed-out voice, “how much carbs and calories that stuff has? You’ll have to work out for hours to get rid of that again!”

 

“I bet she’s just going to vomit,” the other girl said, sipping on her Evian with a sour mouth.

 

“But I am not feeling sick,” Nseri beamed, popping the tip of the cone into her mouth, and licking her fingers. Then she saw Loki, and for a moment her expression was curiously blank.

 

“Hey,” Loki said. All three girls were staring at him now.

 

“You again.” Nseri gave him a once-over, and the two other girls followed her example, but his eyes exclusively on Nseri, he didn’t notice.

 

“Yeah, me again,” he said with a grin, “and no door for you to slam in my face.”

 

“Lucky you,” Nseri gave back, sounding more amused than irritated for a change. Indeed, she seemed actually pleased to see him. She got up and came to stand close to him, her eyes intent.

 

“I just had an icecream cone,” she told him, ignorig the other girls’ stares.

 

“Yes, I saw that,” Loki grinned. “You still have some on your face, and you ruined your make-up.”

 

He reached out and ran a finger over the corners of her mouth. Then, his eyes holding her gaze, he licked the drop of chocolate icecream off, grinning.

 

“Are you here for dessert?”, Nseri asked, and he laughed.

 

“I am here for starters, main course, dessert, and coffee, now that you’re asking.”

 

“That’s a big order,” she smiled, her eyes running deliberately down his body and up again.

 

“You can take it, I can deliver,” he gave back, a challenge in his eyes.

 

They were standing so close they were almost touching, and the two girls on the folding chairs were exchanging glances inder raised brows.

 

“Well,” Nseri said, “I am going to be very hungry when we’re done here. Take me to a restaurant tonight, and we’ll see about the rest of it once I’ve had dinner. But make it somewhere nice, okay?” She ran a fingertip along his jaw line and continued, “The better the main course, the better the dessert … In fact, make it Tabula Rasa,” she purred, naming the hippest and also most expensive place in town. Loki didn’t bat an eye, but the girls behind her started to whisper furiously, and not very kindly, judging by the distinct hiss in their conversation.

 

“When are you going to be done here?”, Loki asked.

 

“Two more hours, tops,” Nseri said, leaning even closer, smiling into Loki’s eyes. The door of the van opened to let out the two boys, re-done and changed into new clothes, and without taking her gaze off Loki, Nseri called, “Felix? You’ll have to re-do my mouth, I’ve had some icecream …”

 

An overdramatic squeal from the make-up artist in the van made her giggle; then she reached up swiftly to pull Loki’s head down, and to send the remains of her lipstick to hell with one fast hard kiss.

 

“Nseri, you little vixen!”, the voice from the van called, “Let go off that beautiful piece of ass and get in here pronto, or yu can do your make-up yourself! Or even better – bring him, and I’ll forgive everything …”

 

With a laugh she was gone, slamming the door of the van for good measure. Loki smiled, turned on his heel, and left to arrange dinner at Tabula Rasa, quite pleased with the sudden change of wind. If he had reason to be suspicious of the girl’s motives, he would find out soon enough – he would make sure that by the time this evening ended, she wouldn’t remember any mischief she might be planning just now. He was not precisely a beginner in this particular game …

 

***

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Standing on the sidewalk across from Tabula Rasa, Loki was frowning at the tastefully understated front of the restaurant. He had called them from a phone booth, and had booked a table for two, managing to do so on unusual short notice through a mixture of pretense, lies, and insouciance. But now he needed the money to pay for it, and that was going to be a little tricky …

 

He normally managed to get by without any real money, and had no qualms about the means he used to get what he needed. He had no scruples to let somebody else pay for a dinner, and never had a problem finding somebody who offered, even in a top restaurant like Tabula Rasa – more often than not a female somebody, too. But there was no way to cadge a dinner for two, so he needed real money for a change.

 

Of all the presents Anya had given him he had only kept the leather jacket – he liked it, and it also made some sense when he was sleeping rough. But even if he pawned or sold it, he wouldn’t get nearly enough for it to pay tonight’s restaurant check.

 

With a sigh, he leaned against a wall to think the problem over, searching through his pockets for his cigarettes. Just when he realised that he had left his pack on the fire escape at Nseri’s shooting location, his fingers encountered something else, unexpected, but all the more welcome.

 

The watch.

 

He didn’t even remember having put it into the zippered inner pocket of the jacket – perhaps Anya had, in an attempt to make him use it. He never used watches, and hadn’t been interested in this one, either, but Anya had told him that this model was currently all the rage. He knew enough about Midgard to understand that it also meant that it was very expensive.

 

Conveniently for Loki, the restaurant was right in the middle of one of the classier shopping areas in town, and he had to walk less than a minute to find a shop with a display of similarily chunky watches. The twin of the one he had in his pocket held pride of place in the window, and the tiny metal letters of the sign next to it spelling out the price in the most discreet way possible, made his brows rise in astonishment. His grasp on currencies was rather erratic, but that was quite a lot of numbers …

 

For a moment he stood in front of the jeweller’s window, considering his options. Then he summarily discarded the idea of a pawn shop, and left the posh shopping district to walk deep into a maze of narrower, seedier streets, until he found the man he was looking for. Baggy pants, big shirt, his hair under the cap shorn to a fuzz, a sunbed tan and some chunky jewelry proclaiming him a man of street fashion, the guy was in his early twenties, a wiry, nervous type, constantly moving to a beat only he could hear.

 

“Hey Greg,” Loki said, and Greg greeted him with ingratiating familiarity.

 

“Good timing, man,” he said. “I got the best grass I’ve laid eyes on in years, just come in last night.”

 

“Not buying today,” Loki said. “Actually, I want you to look at something.”

 

Greg’s face fell in disappointment, but when Loki reached into his pocket he was still curious enough to step closer. When he saw the watch, the sharp intake of his breath told Loki all he needed to know.

 

“Whoa,” Greg said, trying hard not to sound too impressed, and failing. “Who’d you get that one off of?”

 

“It was a gift,” Loki said coolly.

 

“Yeah, man, sure,” Greg grinned. “Nice gift. So what – you wanna be rid of it?”

 

“Interested?”

 

Inspite of his greedy eyes, Greg said, “Nah … not really. I got one already, see?”

 

He flashed his wrist, and Loki smiled. The watch on Greg’s wrist, even though it was the same brand, was looking like the poor relation of the one he was holding in his hand.

 

He gave Greg a bland smile, and said amicably, “No problem. I just thought I’d ask you before I take it into the street.”

 

Slapping a hand on the man’s shoulder in a farewell gesture, he turned and sauntered down the alley; he didn’t need to look at the watch to know that his time was running out. He trusted Nseri to not wait a single second if he failed to pick her up the moment the shooting was over. But he had calculated correctly – he was only a few steps down the sidewalk when Greg called, “Aww, the hell with it! … let me see it again, man.”

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