Agony

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        The Carstle had a stiffer ride now that Indra had doubled the number of shock absorbers under it and gotten stiffer springs.  Even with a ton and a half of Agony inside, it was holding up.  Well, it was mostly holding up, Indra thought sourly as she took a corner a bit too fast and the Carstle swayed.


        She pulled onto 680 and started heading south, with her arm hanging out of the window and the Les Miserables soundtrack blasting on the stereo. The wind was whistling through the Carstle.  She should have been happy, but it wasn't the same without Philo there.


        Traffic was heavy, but it parted in front of her like water before the prow of a boat.  The Carstle loomed over the road, and it was only natural that people got out of the way.  With a grin, she cut in the exterior speakers to share the soundtrack with the world.  But still....


        Agony was creeping her out.  She sneaked a glance in the rear-view mirror, and there she was bigger than life. Every newspaper in the damn state was screaming about the Laura Houang murder, and here she was delivering a gargoyle that looked just like her.  Indra was proud of it, but she also hated it.  The horrified expression framed the startlingly realistic ceramic eyes, staring back at her through a layer of glass tears, out of a bronze rictus of pain and blood, facial muscles bereft of a skin to mask the feelings.  Indra had stayed up nights working with brass, glass and bronze and patinas and tarnishes until she had finally found a good way to simulate the look of blood and exposed muscle and still be true to her materials.  You didn't just paint something like this; the color had to be part of the metal.


        But she couldn't look at Agony without thinking of Laura Houang, the high-school student whose corpse had been all over the newspapers.  And nobody else would be able to look at it without thinking of her either.  It had been dark work to start with, but the timing made it way way darker. Philo had wanted no part of this delivery run, and she didn't blame him a bit.


        She paid the toll at the toll booth.  The toll guy took the Carstle in stride, but his eyes popped a little when he saw her tattoos.  She grinned at him with a bravado she didn't feel, and headed out across the San Mateo Bridge.


        She headed back up 101 on the other side and finally pulled in behind the Arnand gallery again.  Once again, Ames met her at the back door.  She popped open the back of the Carstle so he could look at Agony, but he didn't seem pleased.  He just nodded.  "Good work," he said, but he seemed strained, somehow distant.


        Once again, his assistant came out with the forklift, but she was looking thin and haggard.  Her hair was cut shorter and her complexion, once rich chocolate, was now splotchy, dark and dry.  Her movements were still precise, but seemed somehow furtive and fearful rather than confident and professional.  She was dressed in a slinky black gown with a belt that formed the bottom point of her laced-up neckline in front and the top point of the laced-up leg slits on each side.  Worn with confidence and a smile, it would have been sexy, but in her current mood it seemed only tawdry.


        They didn't say a word as they took Agony in, up to the room on the fourth floor where it would stand a silent vigil with the other gargoyles she'd made.  But when the pallet came to rest and Connor's assistant shut off the motor, She stood staring at Agony with her dark brown eyes, and Indra stood staring at her.  Finally, she looked up and caught sight of Indra's eyes.


        "What's your name?" Indra asked.


        She glanced at Connor, then, slowly, she opened her mouth.  Once, twice, as though remembering how to speak. "Cherie," she finally said.  "My name's Cherie.  You do powerful work, Miss Indra."


        "Thanks," Indra said.  Philo had told her this woman was sensitive.  It looked like it was tearing her apart.


        They went to Connor's office and he wrote her a check.  But it was only fifteen thousand.  "Hey!" Indra  protested.  "Didn't we have a deal for twenty?"


        Connor smiled a tight smile, full of false regret. "Under the circumstances, Indra, I don't think this one is quite as valuable as the first four."  He was right, damnit. What was she going to do, go to the cops?  They'd drag her into the Laura Houang thing, sure as shit.  And then she'd get into trouble about the ring she'd found, and ... Ugh. Fifteen thousand, minus her art supplies, power bills for the kilns, tools, and rent at Philo's place, had her working for barely minimum wage on this gargoyle, but there was nothing she could do about it.  She took his check.


        "You know where the door is, Indra," he said as she stepped out of his office.  "I'll be staying here for now." She heard Cherie choke a sob as she left. The woman seriously needed to find a different job, she thought. Nobody who gets too involved with art should be working at the Arnand Gallery while Ames was building this collection.

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