Prologue

They came into the room as a pair of savage animals, with blazing eyes and snapping jaws, unintelligible growlings pouring from their lips like bile. In a fierce, feline tango, they circled one another, sizing up. Electricity flashed between identical sets of dark eyes. And then he pounced. She scratched with fingernails, he with teeth, and blood flecked on the plush white carpet. There was a snapping of bones and a high pitched shriek as she hit the wall. He barked out a vicious laugh. She wailed angrily, pinned beneath his chest.

For a moment they were frozen. Breaths coming hot and too frequent in each other's faces, fierce mouthes inches apart. Sequins drizzled from her torn dress like precious rubies; his expensive tie was a shredded skin around his throat. Their cheeks were purple with bruised fingerprints, scarlet with blood, and damp with exhausted sweat.

"Alright, Bianca. Game's up." He smiled a victorious smile. "Talk to me now, and-I swear it-I won't hurt you."

She made a last valiant effort to free herself, thrashing about and kicking his shins. His hand whistled through the air and struck her face. She moaned and fell back against the wall, her pale cheek reddening immediately. Have no doubt it was fear in her eyes.

"It's over. Too late for that. You put up a good fight, but now you'll only make it worse," he warned. She, like a caged cat, eyed him mutinously. "Now. I'll give you one more chance: I'll let you up, you go sit on the bed like a good girl, and we'll have a nice little chat about recent events. As long as you behave, I won't hurt you. Think you can handle it?" She gave no answer but for a sulky glare. "Good." He backed up. She tumbled out from beneath him, gingerly touching the stinging handprint on her face.

"The bed. Where I can watch you."

She went obediently, her lips in a hard line, her eyes desperately, defensively cold. She perched on the very edge of the mattress, facing the door. The man, her husband, remained standing. And as he spoke, he paced agitatedly before her.

"Bianca, I've had enough," he deftly smeared a rivulet of blood from the corner of his mouth. "For a while, I thought I loved you, I really did. That night...that kiss..." his anger tripped his tongue. "I'll hand it to you, you really had me fooled."

Bianca, tense and dissatisfied on the bed, stared balefully up at him. Dying embers jumped up in her black eyes, as if in a fearful rebellion, and fell back. He did not see.

"You're a good actress, you know that? More con artist than wife. But I know better now," he walked faster, on a restless tiger's feet. His hands were fists at his sides. "Dammit, why did I marry you? You're a witch, that's what you are! Tell me, Bianca, how many others have there been?"

There was an electric silence as the man seethed, his eyebrows and lips twitching. Nothing mattered anymore-not the confused magic show, not the failed illusion. Now there was only hot fury. Bloodshot eyes and heavy, wine-scented breath. He was angry and it was-all of it-her fault. The woman abandoned her fierce, cold facade and now simply looked terrified.

"Tell me, you little slut!" he shouted. Spittle flew from his tongue and flecked across her face.

She looked up mutely, all wild eyes and quivering lips. "You're drunk! You're drunk, and I'm drunk, and I don't know what you're saying!"

He roared so loudly that the bedside lamp quailed and quaked, as if in a wind. She was off the bed now, dashing towards the door. But, in one great bound, he crossed the room. "Men, you stupid thing! How many!" He shouted and she screamed as he took her roughly by the neck.

The broken room, once so lavish, was knocked into further disarray as Bianca was tossed across the floor. The thick fur rug caught beneath her and the cord of a Tiffany lamp looped around her ankle. The crash it made as it hit the ground was deafening.

"Whore or not, you're still my wife! Mine!" He took his ring from his finger and held it before her face to illustrate. "And there's nothing you can do to keep me from exercising my rights!"

She was wild with fear now. She hauled herself up from the floor and went to him on bloody hands and bruised knees. "John! John, John, John!" she choked, her voice broken and hoarse. She took the hem of his trousers and brought her shaking lips down in a kiss. "I love you! I've always loved you! You don't remember anything..."

He tore his foot away. "You're right. I don't remember our love. I don't remember the girl you used to be. Hell, I don't even remember why I ever found you appealing. But I do remember this: you and that-that other man. Night after night, when you should have been with me! And it killed me, Bianca! It killed me for so long..." now his voice was shaking too. A sob-a warped, mournful sound-caught behind the barrier of Bianca's teeth. She was selfishly frantic, and selfishly afraid, and very, very selfishly sorry.

And then his hands were around her wrists. Pulling tighter, tighter, heaving her up off the scuffed floor. His fingers were tearing at her dress, at her skin. He was mad with a righteous desire to hurt her. He kissed her callously, tasting her lips with his teeth. Her breath was wine-his was a vineyard.

He pressed his cheek to her ear. "You're mine," he whispered. The exhalation was like fire on the side of her face. "My little doll. I can make you do whatever I want," as he said this he pulled on a strand of her dark silken hair. "And I don't love you anymore."

Another vicious kiss. Heels dragging on the floor, resisting. Torn dress. Torn suit. Soft bed and rough hands all over. Dizzy, intoxicated sadness and fear! fear! fear! The world was a painful blur of colors and lights and sticky hot air. And, in the confusion, her fingers found the bureau drawer. Found the pistol, kept only for emergencies. He didn't even notice when she buried it in his hair.

The noise was deafening, and wonderfully so. He didn't scream; he didn't gasp. He simply fell. Bianca, panting, fought her way out from beneath his heavy form. Her dark gaze was triumphant and astonished as she looked from the pistol, tight in her hand, to her husband's body on the bed. A blur of scarlet was soaking the rumpled white sheets. She tugged her mutilated dress up and stumbled, part fearful, part amazed, part rapturous, towards the corpse. She cautiously touched his hand, which was stiff and dry and dreadfully cool. And, very gently, and only because she thought it appropriate, she kissed the ring on his finger. She said nothing. Felt nothing but dying adrenaline and faint nausea.

By the next day, the corpse was gone and the room was tidy. No one thought about murder-Monsieur Mirage, the illusionist, had simply vanished from the face of the Earth. There never was a funeral.