Aeryn Baker climbed into the back of his limousine and read the letter from his late husband, Van Philip Harris, for perhaps the hundredth time.
Dearest Mother and Beloved Husband,
You each have been a comfort and loving support to me in your unique ways, though the feud between you has been a source of consternation to me. It is my earnest wish that the two of you find a deeper understanding of one another. Toward that end, I wish the two of you to spend an evening together on my yacht, the Floating Edge. Should either party decline to participate, the declining party shall be awarded the sum of one dollar. The remainder of their inheritance shall be forfeit.
Aeryn had received Van Philip’s diary with the letter. It was bound in red leather and fastened with a lock better suited to a bank security box than a book. Four silken bookmarks peeked out from the inaccessible pages.
“Driver,” Aeryn called. “Pass Pacific and take 45th.”
The route cost them an extra mile and a long line of traffic. It also took them past a certain French wine bar that had once been the Latte Da Cafe. Just seven years ago, Van Philip had ordered an Americano with milk, sugar, and the young barista to go. Aeryn had fallen deep into the undeniable safety of Van Philip’s steel grey eyes and had never found his way back.
Aeryn was still lost in nostalgia when they reached the yacht club. He was passed between servants until he found himself seated at the table in Van Philip’s office below deck.
His mother-in-law, Hilda, joined him a few minutes later carrying a green bottle of Brennevín. She took two glasses from the wet bar, overfilled them, and handed one to Aeryn.
“Skál,” she toasted.
“Skall,” Aeryn approximated and clinked glasses. He struggled not to spit out the harsh liquor.
Hilda removed her necklace and slid it to Aeryn across the table. In place of a pendant there was a small silver key. She sat across the table from him and waited. Her eyes were the mirror image of her son’s, but filled with danger.
Aeryn unlocked the diary. Hard wax had been used to seal most of the pages together, save those with the bookmarks. The first bookmark had a large number one and the words “Aeryn reads” beneath it. His husband might have been overly dramatic, but at least he was always clear.
Uncle was furious. He told me I belonged in a mental institution and that I would never, ever run the family business. I knew he had to be stopped, but I didn’t understand how.
Mother poured him a drink from the crystal decanter. He shouted for a while longer, but then his breathing grew shallow. He pulled at the collar of his shirt and panicked. It didn’t matter. Nothing would.
His tongue swelled and turned black. I wanted to trace the beautiful red lines as they formed on his eyes. A few minutes later he was convulsing. After that, he went still. The problem was solved.
Aeryn looked across the table at his mother-in-law. She sat calmly, without the slightest hint of shame or denial. Aeryn looked down at his glass and tried to decide whether his tongue was swelling. His breathing was definitely rapid, on the verge of hyperventilating.
Then he figured hyperventilation was the exact opposite of what he should be worried about if death meant being unable to breathe. A mixture of relief and embarrassment swirled through him. He turned the diary to the next bookmark, but it had the number three. The next was four, and finally number two, with the words “Hilda reads.” Aeryn passed the diary to her.
Today I finally held my daughter.
Hilda stopped. For the first time since Aeryn had known her, she looked shaken.
“How is this possible? You are two men together!”
“We used a surrogate.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You will. Read.”
Today I finally held my daughter. Her eyes are full of promise and the pure grey that marks our family line across the generations.
I never expected to feel the pull of the future like this, but ever since the doctor read me my death sentence, I have thought of nothing else. With the future in my arms, I can finally rest. I’m ready.
“This surrogate. Did Van Philip take a woman to bed and make her to mother for him with no marriage?”
“Almost. Van Philip and I went to a fertility clinic. They used science to make the baby so he didn’t need to touch her. The surrogate is a woman they put the baby into to grow.”
“Like a cow?”
“I suppose so.”
“So where is his baby now?”
“With the surrogate. She is nursing her for now.”
“Of course. The cow milk. How do we see this baby?”
“First, we would need to –” Aeryn started, but his vision was growing a bit blurry and his mouth felt dry. He reached for his drink, but Hilda knocked it onto the floor. She pulled a vial from her purse and forced the end into his mouth.
“Quickly,” she said. “Drink this.”
“What is it?” he mumbled through thick lips.
“The antidote. Drink.”
It smelled foul and tasted worse, like spoiled cream and rotten eggs. Hilda hovered over him, forcing him to drink more and more water, keeping him awake when sleep would be so much easier. Air came in tiny gulps. The world was shrinking away.
Aeryn looked up at Hilda, his vision turning as grey as her eyes. She looked back, but in that moment, her eyes were Van Philip’s, and he was disappointed with Aeryn. Their daughter needed him, and it was time to fight.
Vomit surged, burning his throat and nasal passages, leaving a hideous smell behind. He continued to heave long after his stomach was empty. Hilda forced more of the antidote into him.
This went on past Aeryn’s last strength, then for perhaps an hour more. Hilda wiped his face with a white towel, and it came back covered with blood, bile, and other dark fluids Aeryn couldn’t identify.
He was alive.
“Please arrange a visit with the baby now.” Hilda said.
Aeryn looked up at her and saw clearly how much his husband had been her son. His next words would be critical.
“We haven’t finished reading for Van Philip.”
Hilda paused for what seemed too long, then nodded. She helped Aeryn into his seat before taking her own and flipping to the third bookmark.
She passed the diary to him. “It says ‘Aeryn reads.’”
Aeryn found me covered in blood this morning. A member of the board of directors was prepared to remove me as CEO. I had not detected him in time for a more subtle solution.
Aeryn brought the carbon steel knives from the kitchen. We spent the day carving the body together. Aeryn ground the bones and gristle and then soaked them in detergent. He mixed in pork sausage to the result, leaving only the DNA of swine for any forensic team might follow.
He saved the heart. When our work was finished, he sliced it into thin pieces and applied spices from his kitchen. He poured rich oils from our trip to Venice into the cast iron skillet we received at our wedding.
He taught me to savor victory.
Confusion ruffled Hilda’s brow. “How can you understand these things?” she asked. “Your eyes are not pure.”
“He was my husband.” Aeryn replied. He removed a delicate, carbon steel knife from his jacket and placed it on the table.
Hilda leaned forward, measuring the distance to the knife, then raised her eyes, measuring Aeryn as if for the first time.
Aeryn slid the diary back to her and rested his hand on the knife. “The last section is yours.”
My face hurts. Every night Aeryn helps me to practice making my face into a mask with smiles, frowns and little gestures. I wish I could have learned this as a child so that my face would be stronger and more fluent.
The results have been amazing. Today one of the executives came to me. Her face matched the picture of indecision that Aeryn taught me how to recognize. I asked the feeling questions and made the face of concern. She responded with a long story about her child. I made the face of sympathy like Aeryn does, and water leaked from her eyes.
Just when it seemed that this was all a waste of time, she told me about a new invention in her division that would be worth millions, and that she was concerned her supervisor might be planning to take the work outside the company.
She was right. I secured the work and my detectives made quick work of finding the venture capitalists funding him.
I had only hoped that these facial games would allow me to hide from men like my Uncle. I never imagined they could do so much more.
Hilda closed the diary and looked at Aeryn. Her hair was bound in a tight bun, her fingers folded in her lap, and her posture perfectly straight. There was something off about her skin, like it was polished after having been set in place. Her lips curled neither up nor down.
Outsiders would call this a perfect mask, betraying nothing of her feelings, but Aeryn saw her face for what it was, a clear window showing no emotions because there were none to show.
“Will you teach my son’s daughter to make these faces so that none will hunt her until she can bring forth the male heir?”
“No,” Aryen said flatly. “Never that.”
Hilda’s eyes focused to a deadly point. Aeryn kept his grip on the knife and continued to speak.
“I will not teach her to hide. I will teach her to rule.”
Hilda considered. “So progressive. Yes, this is right. The child will rule. How do we see her?”
“That won’t be easy. Ever since Van Philip went into the hospital, the surrogate has been consulting with lawyers and fighting the custody transfer. I suspect she is hoping the child will inherit and she would control the fortune. She won’t allow visitors without an agreement.”
“This is not a problem. Our lawyers will put the dream of monies into her eyes. We will show her riches and take her to sea. When the baby is past the time of milk, we will harvest the cow.”
Aeryn smiled. “I’ll bring my spice rack.”
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