Notes: Gambit, Rogue, Phantazia, Pyro, Vargas etc. are copyrighted to Marvel. All other characters are mine and may not be used without my express permission (like you'd ever want to :p).
Thanks to Lia Brown for her extensive and invaluable knowledge of Phantazia and Pyro; to 'CSI: Crime Scene Investigation' (for help with working the crime scene!);'The Key to the Tarot' by A.E. Waite; 'The Book of Thoth' by Aleister Crowley (for all that is tarot); 'The Serial Killers' by Colin Wilson and Donald Seaman (for the psychology of killers and technical terms); Bic Runga, Björk and, of course, the Eagles (for the use of their words); my grandmother (for the French, Creole and traditional Catholic stuff); and Angela Carter, Randirogue, Vicki Lew and Letanica (for their marvellous writing and inspiration!)
Warning: Contains mature themes – references to and/or scenes of violence, nudity, sex (both consensual and non-consensual), drug abuse, murder and bad language etc. If you are a minor in your area, or find such themes offensive, please read responsibly (or not at all)!
This fic takes place somewhere between X-Treme X-Men #19 and X-Pose #2.
If I've done anything wrong, as regards to continuity, technical terms and American stuff (since I'm a Brit an' all ;) I'd be grateful if you could let me know!
- 'Pour mon père, qui regarde sur nous dans la bonté.' -
. Queen of Diamonds .
. I .
One thing he remembered clearly from that night.
(Apart from swigging beer from a bottle, and the tight curve of her ass in those tight leather pants.)
One thing he remembered was that the song being played was 'Desperado', and the fact that he couldn't stop giggling at it.
"You're crazy, swamp snake, y'know that?" the girl with the tight ass said.
…These things that are pleasin' you can haunt you somehow…
"Got a light?" he asked the man behind the bar. "I accidentally blew mine up."
…Don't you draw the Queen of Diamonds, boy…
And then there was the cigarette, and the way the smoke roiled round in his mouth like the worst foul-tasting drug.
"Ah thought y' said you were givin' that up."
…No, the Queen of Hearts is always your best bet…
"Are you listenin' to a word ah'm sayin'?"
Listening? What the hell did listening mean? Next morning he wouldn't remember any of this. God forbid he would. He looked at the bottle in his hand. Dark brown and glinting like old blood in sunlight. He'd lost count. Totally and utterly. …Come down from your fences… Of course, it didn't matter. By the next one he'd have crossed that fine line, and then in some odd ritualistic way he'd be back on that fence and looking out blissfully onto that hazy horizon of no-return. Come down indeed. He'd be darned if he was ever gonna come down from them again.
"Remy, what the hell are you talkin' about?"
He was still looking down at that cute butt of hers.
"Was I talkin'?" he managed to slur.
"Ah think you should stop right about now." The threatening note to her voice was lost on him. If only her mouth would stop talking at him. Goddammit he was nearly there. He was so close to crossing…
"What're you, chere?" he asked, "You my Queen o' Hearts or my Queen o' Diamonds?"
Everything else after that was shrouded in the prettiest of blurs.
There was nothing quite like it, the sultry, still, silent humidity of summer nights in a quaint old southern town. The arid plain of dusty dirt track, the grasshoppers, invisible, non-existent but for the disembodied sound of their relentless chirping. The trees, motionless, dyed half indigo, half olive, split down the middle by the shaft of light that splayed out from the bar. The bar, dead wood on the outside, palpitating with music and laughter and shouting on the inside, an alchemical repository of raucous life.
Just outside, Lizzie Brown, twenty-something high-flying but aspiring interior designer, sighs and stops and rummages inside her handbag for a pack of cigarettes. The packet she retrieves is empty. In rage and despair she flings the crumpled box to the ground. Everything is going wrong. Drink, after all, is not the same without a drag. The short walk back to the motel is not the same without that thin, white stick between her fingers.
Earlier that morning, green-haired, brown-eyed Lizzie Brown had wished that she were dead. She had come to this small-time town to meet her lover, a married man with whom she was having a clandestine affair. But she had always been given to bouts of depression, of fear, insecurity and mistrust. Yes – this young woman, liberal, independent, secure in her high-flying career, generous to a fault, and she suffered from mistrust! But it was true. True enough for her to believe that her lover still wanted to be with his wife, even though Lizzie so badly wanted his children. True enough for her to confront him with it, for them to argue about it, and for him to walk out.
She had wished she was dead, but instead had chosen to drown her sorrows in whiskey and beer.
Now she recalls the man sitting at the bar, not because he had been smoking, and because she wanted a smoke right now too, but because she had spent most of the night staring at him. Handsome as the devil, and drunk with it too. Eyes as red as blood – how apt! The girl beside him with the skunk stripe in her hair, throwing him looks of the evillest kind. Lizzie considers going back inside and asking him for a cigarette, before she remembers that he'd borrowed a light from the bartender, and that he was supposed to be giving up smoking anyway (from what the skunk-striped girl had said).
So she stumbles on into the night. Her ramshackle motel room is on the other side of the olive and indigo trees and she totters inside stilettos and a nylon mini skirt, totters in a self-piteous, half-drunken stupor. It is hotter than hot when inebriated. She fans herself with her handbag. The trees swallow her. All she can think about is her lover, and the red-eyed man, and the fresh packet of cigarettes on her bedside table.
When her murderer pounces, her flailing is as uncoordinated as his gloved hands are precise, and deft, and measured. She feels his rank breath upon her neck and sees, in the shortest of seconds, that the trees are no longer two-toned but cloaked in inky sable; no light bejewels their shrouded leaves.
Sharp metal bites, penetrates into her throat; cold, so cold. Colour spatters across the darkness, wet and sparkling, but by that time she does not see it.
As she crosses over the hazy horizon of no-return, the only thing Lizzie Brown sees are the red eyes burning like Chinese lanterns in the black, sultry night.
Next morning Remy still didn't have his answer, partly because he couldn't even remember having asked the question at all. Something was banging away at his temples with the dull insistence of some heavy, blunt object. He thought it was the butt of someone's gun.
Something was jabbing into the sensitive tract of scar tissue along his chest. It hurt more than the butt of the gun that was banging away at his temples. Instinctively he pushed whatever it was away. Through the crack in his eyes he saw that it was Rogue's shoulder, bare as a baby's butt.
He sat up, rubbing the scar tentatively, having no recollection of where he was or how he had got there. It ached. Godammit it ached, and no bloody wonder, the room they were in was so freakin' damp he could feel the moisture in his very bones. He could feel it, seeping into his skin and pooling round the old wound like a long-forgotten memory of blood surging to the surface. And then it all came back to him. The fence. The line he hadn't crossed. The finest line he'd ever known; it wouldn't even have taken a step to get to the other side. He tried to calculate the seconds he had stood looking out blissfully onto that hazy horizon of no-return. It wasn't just the after-effects of drink that made the task so difficult.
It was the fact that he was forgetting.
Memory, so damn imperfect.
He looked back at Rogue, lying half-dressed in her ste'pin between the sheets. Two weeks on the road and last night was probably the first time since New Orleans that he'd touched her intimately. Probably. He just couldn't remember.
"So who are you, chere?" he murmured. Same old question, same old silence. "My Queen o' Hearts or my Queen o' Diamonds?"
Rogue was awakened by the sound of Remy crashing round the motel room like some wild boar, the sounds of which were interspersed with mumblings of 'aspirin, aspirin, my kingdom for some aspirin', or words to that effect. Hank would have been absolutely horrified.
"Remy, what is Gawd's name…?" she began, sitting up. He was pulling at empty draws so violently that one or two of them had actually flown halfway across the room.
"Aren't there any painkillers round here?" he burst out in despair.
"Mah God, you're still drunk."
"Not hardly. Can't remember any o' last night."
"You don't say," she glared at him. His shirt was on back to front; the tag was sticking out above his collarbone. It would've been funny if she wasn't so damn cross with him. For two weeks now they had been on the road, and he had been going out of his way to avoid any physical contact with her. She hadn't made an issue of it – she had, after all, been feeling guilty that she had stolen his one shot at redemption away from him. And then what had happened? They'd ended up in this little town, he'd got drunk, and then – only then – had he had the nerve to start pawing her.
What she remembered – as opposed to what he did, relative to their own peculiar perceptions of the event – was the way his hand had touched her buttocks, and, more specifically, the way his thumb had brushed the rectangle of flesh above her belt and below the hem of her crop top. And the way he had proceeded, very graphically, to tell her exactly what he wanted to do to her.
"Go fuck yourself, Cajun!" she'd raged at him instead.
Through the bleary cobwebs of drunkenness, he had managed an expression of anger. Pure anger, she should say, because he rarely turned on her in spite, or malice, or violence. But his face at that moment was indescribable – there was no remorse, no bitterness, no sorrow. Those were the things she was used to. But not the look of hatred he had passed her, brief, bold, unequivocal.
It had probably lasted not more than a second, before he had leapt down from his seat and staggered out of the bar. Her own rage had probably lasted not more than a few minutes more, and then she too left. For one thing, she knew she shouldn't have left him to walk back to the motel alone in that state; for another thing, she was still feeling unaccountably guilty; and finally, she was aching for the brush of his thumb against her skin once more.
"Remy!" she'd called out into the night.
He wasn't anywhere to be found.
And then she'd sat on the doorstep of the bar, and cried in utter, inconsolable despair. It wasn't only because she was in-love with him, and hopelessly incapable of dealing with it. It was also because, since she'd become 'normal', the psyches in her head had been shifting underneath the dome of her skull like fish stirring underneath the sheer glaze of water. Memories were resurfacing from the murky depths, memories that seemed vaguely familiar but that she could not place. How on earth could she answer his question? How could she say whether she was Queen-of-this or Queen-of-that, when she didn't even know who she was but a made-up name called 'Rogue'?
Now Remy was staring at her, head cocked to one side, suddenly considering.
"Did we, y'know, do anyt'ing last night?" he asked her. He had managed to stand up straight and was shooting something that could only resemble a leer at her. She realised it was because she was only barely dressed. Blanching, she snatched the covers to her chest. Last night, after crying in front of the bar for a good quarter of an hour, she'd trudged back to the motel only to find him out cold and in bed.
"Damn you," she'd muttered. She'd wanted to cry again, but instead – unable to resist – she'd stripped down to her underwear and slid in under the covers next to him. "Touch me, you bastard," she'd ordered to his unconscious face. When he hadn't answered or moved, she'd shifted right up to his side, put her bare arms round him, flesh on flesh (how strange, how sweet!), and had fallen asleep. In the darkness she had not noticed the two spots of blood that had lain on the mattress between them.
And now he was looking at her like this, and he couldn't remember a thing. That was what made it even worse.
"You're kiddin', right?" she seethed, clutching hard at the duvet. "Look at yah! Even now you can't even co-ordinate your own two feet! 'Sides, you stank, Remy, you stank real bad! You think I'd let you near me when you reeked like a beer keg?"
He winced, but it didn't seem to be from her words. Instinctively his hand went to his chest. He'd been doing that often recently, and it had puzzled her. But she was angry that he had rejected her, and so she decided to ignore it.
"You embarrassed me, Cajun!" she shouted again. "You embarrassed me in front of the whole bar! You just had to keep on touchin' me up like ah was some cheap li'l hoe from the streets. An' then…!" She was getting to the climatic part, he could sense it. He could only look on in amusement as he saw that tousle-haired, half-dressed Mississippi river rat rant at him. "An' then you had the nerve to say those dirty, disgustin' things t' me – in front of everyone – an' even then you wouldn't stop pawin' mah butt!"
Dieu, she was sexy. His own skunk-striped little spitfire. He could barely understand a word she was saying, her accent was so thick. If only her mouth would stop talking at him…if only she wasn't so mad at him…if only he wasn't so mad at her, he'd –
He was totally unaware that he was grinning. Bad idea.
"Oh, so now y' think it's funny, do yah!" she seethed.
"I seem t' be havin' some recollection o' last night," he answered evasively. It was a half-truth. The only thing that was coming to him right at the moment was staring at her leather-clad ass. For some reason it seemed okay to relish the memory. He knew that when he'd sobered up he'd go back to being mad at her again.
"Good. An' ah hope it damn well hurts."
He didn't hear what she said next.
Running to the bathroom, he doubled over and vomited noisily into the toilet.
Touche, he thought miserably.
Afternoon; sober-time; Remy had, inevitably, gone back to being mad at her. Silence had stood between them like an invisible, impenetrable wall. What had finally permeated it was the unforgettable scream from next door. The scream, which pierced through the building like a fire alarm, rousing everyone in the near vicinity into dazed and unreal motion. Such was its brevity, its shrillness, that Remy's head shattered as if he had not sobered up at all – but the next moment that was forgotten as he raced outside the room to see what on earth was going wrong, Rogue following close behind.
Outside the room next door, the Mexican maid was babbling and shuddering like a madwoman; underneath the heaviness of her thick and elaborate make-up, the cast of her skin was painfully white. She was jabbering away in her native language with a lyrical staccato – neither Rogue nor Remy could quite follow what she was saying. As other people gathered around the evidently frightened and hysterical woman, all she could do was point and point and point at the red, opened door to room #101.
Blood, blood dripping, one, two, over still-warm flesh.
That was all Remy could remember before he entered into the little room.
Lizzie Brown was lying on her bed, nude, anonymous, unmasked to the world, horribly, horribly naked. If she had stepped away from her body and seen herself, she would have been horrified and ashamed at what she saw. Her naked flesh, exposed for all those nameless voyeurs to see; naked, unknown, nameless.
Remy's face was hard and cold as the maid gibbered away at him, one hand clasping his arm as though to suck the strength out of him. He was hard and cold as he looked at Lizzie Brown whose name he did not know. Her head rested askance on the headboard as if to regard him with suspicion, but her brown eyes – though wide open – were quite, quite dead. Caked blood had gathered about her throat and a thin runnel had trickled down between her off-pink breasts and downward, to the obscenely parted legs. Between her toes grains of dust had clung to her skin; her feet were brown with mud; the remnants of torn and shredded leaves stuck out from between the frozen digits.
How I envy you, he thought, then put the thought away, clanging the metal barred gate shut behind it. Weird, numb fascination gripped him. Envy.
Meanwhile people gasped and cried and tutted; someone raced down the corridor for the manager, another, numbly, went and dialled 911 and called, breathless and disbelieving, for the police. Some, like Rogue, remained silent. Her arm pressed against Remy's, her lips were pale in the reflected light from the mirror that hung by Lizzie's bed. Remy moved, instinctively, to put an arm across her shoulder, to pull her to him, to protect her from the evidence of such corruption, this bastion of depravity, like a protective mother to child.
"No, no," Rogue protested; nevertheless she leaned into him. "Ah've seen death, ah've seen it before, too many times, too many times to tell."
The words were strange, divorced from her face, from the tightness of her grip on his arm. What she meant to add was, just not like this, just never like this.
Later the police came, as they always did; Remy was naturally wary, wanting to leave; Rogue had no love for cops either, but she had been sufficiently shocked into convincing him to stay. The motel manager was in the middle of the melee, eyes darting this way and that, nervous, scared as a rabbit caught face-to-face in the path of a predator. In his fifties, he was a gaunt, skinny man, but he was not weak, nor was he ineffectual. One time he had been a wealthy man, not born into a fortune, but the type of man who had worked his way to the top at an early age and knew what it was to suffer. An associate of Warren Worthington II, he had once shaken hands with the powerful and the influential, with the rich and the famous. Then he had fallen – as so many of his ilk do – into drug addiction and debt; his wife of ten years had left him and taken with her two children; he would not have seen them in twenty-five years that December. His left arm still bore the tract marks of syringe needles, if you looked closely; it had taken many years to get rid of the almost perpetual imprint that the belt had left on his wiry bicep, but it was gone now. A reformed heroin addict; a changed man. He did not want to remember police.
"Can you tell me when you're going to finish up here?" he asked the officer in charge. He stood outside the painfully open door of room #101, yet his eyes flit nervously away from its interior. "Ah have a business to run, y'know, and this is – well, to tell you the truth, this ain't exactly good PR, know what ah mean?"
The officer's expression was impassive, apart from his mouth, which was very actively chewing gum.
"Sorry, sir, but we still have t' work the crime scene. We'll let you know when you can have your room back," he said.
The manager rubbed his hands nervously. He waited, expecting the officer to say more. The officer didn't. The manager, helpless, half-turned away, but not before he had cast Remy a beseeching look, which Remy immediately took pains to avoid.
"So you weren't the first on the scene," another cop with a notebook was asking him patiently.
"No," Rogue replied, clearly, concisely, the perfect witness. "The maid was, like ah said. We were just one o' the first here b'cause we're stayin' next door. We heard the scream and came right out."
The maid was still babbling away in Spanish down the hallway to a woman officer who looked in dire need of an interpreter.
"So," the cop with the notepad continued. "You heard nothin', saw nothin' last night, right?"
"We were at the bar across town last night," Rogue answered. "When we got back, we didn't hear or see a thing. Everythin' was quiet."
"You came back together?"
"No; not exactly. He – Remy – left first, ah came back about…oh, ah dunno, fifteen, twenty minutes later, maybe more."
"And what time exactly was this?"
"Ah came back maybe 'bout quarter past eleven."
Remy remained silent, since he reckoned Rogue was handling things pretty well herself. He had no desire to talk to the police anyhow – being a 'one-time' professional thief, cops were the enemy, the Red Indians to his errant cowboy. Best to stay quiet. To speak only when spoken to, like Tante Mattie's good little boy. His eyes wandered into the room of the woman who, he'd only recently discovered, was called Elizabeth 'Lizzie' Brown. White-garbed crime scene investigators were dissecting the scene with mechanical precision. Lizzie's white feet were sticking in the air like the bloodless extremities of a lifeless mannequin.
"And could ah have your names please, y'know, just so that we can verify all your details encase we should need to call you as witnesses?"
That shocked Remy into attentiveness. His eyes snapped back to those of the officer.
"Remy LeBeau," he said, after a dread pause. Unfortunately – worse luck – that was the name he'd scrawled into the book when they'd checked in the afternoon before. Besides, Rogue had already given his name away. Amateur.
Ironically, the officer looked at him as though convinced he knew the name to be a false one.
"And yours, miss?" He turned to Rogue.
"Anna. Anna Raven." Rogue returned, without a skip of the beat, without hesitation. Her tone was almost impulsive. Remy stared at her in abrupt yet silent surprise. That was not the name she'd given when they'd checked in yesterday. Momentary confusion took him, but she did not return his look. Her face was straight as a board, neutral to the point of self-consciousness. The officer too looked up at her, eyes probing, sceptical. Remy knew what he was thinking. Two jokers under two assumed names. Must think I was born yesterday. Obviously here on a dirty weekend while their partners are at home thinking they're on 'business'. Poor suckers. Yup, same old story. Some things never change.
The officer pursed his lips, and noted down the names in a deliberate and disbelieving calligraphy.
"Hey guys, look at this! What the hell d'you think it could mean?"
Inside room #101, the crime scene investigators were milling by the bedside. Remy saw that one of them was holding up a pair of tweezers; gripped in between its metal jaws was a thick slip of paper. A card. His heart began to pound.
"What? I already covered the bed and didn't see it. Where was it?"
"Underneath her left hand. Palm covered it right up. The killer obviously put it there."
"Shit. You know what this means, don't you? His MO – organised, ritualistic. This son of a bitch is gonna kill again."
"Ah think we should leave them to it," the officer was saying to Rogue and Remy, moving to usher them away from the crime scene. "In the meantime, you just stay in town, right? Like I said, we might need to call you up as witnesses."
Remy's eyes though, were on the jaws of the tweezers. As the officer herded them away, he saw clearly the image on the card, spattered with faded brown blood, shining in reflected sunlight.
A tarot card.
The Queen of Pentacles.
 Modus operandi – 'mode of operation'.