Annelise had never ridden in a vehicle that did not smell of other people. Taxi cabs usually smelled of their drivers, the cheap quickie meals they ate behind the wheel, and sometimes—if they were in the habit of smoking the stuff and could afford to do so—tobacco or cannabis. Some even smelled of alcohol. Train and subway cars were little better; they smelled of their dozens of occupants, their sweat, and sometimes their urine. All carried the taints of various gradations of poverty and desperation.
The limousine in which she found herself sitting opposite Isaac Magnin smelled of nothing but clean leather upholstery. It smelled like wealth to her, wealth and safety. Despite the presence of the strange man with her, she felt safer than she ever did walking home after work or riding the subway. Moreover, she felt powerful; the tinted windows only obscured the limo's interior from outside eyes; it did not stop her from taking in the glowing neon lights of the city as the driver crossed the Brooklyn Bridge to what Annelise felt was the true New York of which the city's other boroughs were but pale shadows: Manhattan.
The city glittered defiance at the newly fallen night, its spires of steel, concrete, and glass hurling echoes of the recently set sun skyward as if to refuse the light of lesser stars. "I've always taken the subway into Manhattan," said Annelise, almost breathless with an excitement she was sure she should contain. "I've never had the chance to approach the city aboveground. It's wonderful."
"You should see it from space," said Isaac. "Perhaps you'll get your chance."
"Really?" The notion sped Annelise's heart, and the memory of her previous wariness began to fade.
"It depends on what you do after you've heard me out. But for now, why not relax and take in the sights? My driver will take us down 42nd Street to Broadway, and up past Lincoln Center. Consider it a glimpse of a possible future."
A pang of desire left Annelise aching. Isaac seemed aware of her oldest, most ardently held dream and spoke of helping her as if it were a trivial caprice. "Tell me everything, please."
"Not here. It is a long story, and not wholly mine to tell."
Annelise considered this for a time while gazing out at the streets. "Are you taking me to meet friends of yours?"
"Not exactly," said Isaac, his expression momentarily darkening. "Let's say that these are ladies I've known my entire life, experienced practitioners whose judgment I do not lightly dismiss."
Something about his manner dampened her enthusiasm. "Are they… like you?"
"Let's say they helped me become what I am."
"And what /are/ you?" Despite her better judgment, she could no longer keep the question to herself. "Your eyes are like a cat's, and your ears are delicate, pointed, and have little tufts of white fur like a lynx. You're too—"
"Too pretty?" Isaac finished the sentence for her. "Are you sure about that?"
It was a question Annelise did not want to consider. If hairy, rough-hewn men could be gay, then surely it stood to reason that men with the chiseled, androgynous visages of angels might at least be bisexual. Worse, the way he regarded her did not strike her as the gaze of a man with no taste for women. "It's not that I think you're gay. But are you human? Are you even real? You're not going to seduce me into letting you drink my blood, are you?"
The guffaw that escaped Isaac was all too human. "Is /that/ what you think I am? Oh, Annelise, you are simply too good to be true. Such a delightful mix of cynicism and naïvety."
"Now you're making fun of me."
"Only a little," said Isaac. "But if you /want/ to be seduced…"
His lips barely brushed hers, but their warmth lingered and spread throughout her. Though it was strictly speaking a violation, it was one carried out with such audacity and panache that Annelise caught herself wishing he might utterly despoil her. "Jesus."
"Not even close."
Annelise leaned forward, suddenly impatient with both herself and Isaac. "I was serious before. Who and what are you? Can't you tell me anything before we meet these acquaintances of yours? And aren't they dangerous?"
"There is much I could tell you, but I'll not do so until they've met you and formed their own opinions of you. As for the danger they pose: you will be perfectly safe. You are my guest, and under my protection. They will honor that. We are not gods, but we take hospitality as seriously as they do."
"Do you think you'll have to protect me?"
"I doubt it," said Isaac. "No matter the provocation, they will not do open battle in Manhattan. While they are not to be lightly crossed, I am more than either of them can easily dismiss out of hand, and even against their combined might I shall prove formidible."
There was something about the way Isaac spoke of the people to whom he meant to introduce her, these two who were once his mentors but now his colleagues, that both intrigued her and roused jealousy. "What are they like?"
"They are sisters, each a perilous beauty in her own fashion. You will see soon enough. Now look; you've missed out on most of the Theater District but now we approach Lincoln Center."
On impulse she lowered the window and stuck her head out. Though the air was gravid with impending rain, it still carried tattered echoes of a coloratura soprano's aria as she poured out her heart to a hall packed with concertgoers through bustling crowds of pedestrians. A hushed whisper escaped her. "I can hear somebody singing. Is that Lucia Lammermoor?"
Isaac had closed his eyes, a wistful smile playing across his features. "It is indeed. Can you truly hear my daughter?"
"I think so, but it's hard to tell."
The partition separating the driver's seat from the rest of the limousine opened. "Sorry, boss. I must have had the radio cranked too high. WNYC is simulcasting from Lincoln Center."
Annelise sank into her seat, disappointed by the mundane explanation. "I'm sorry. I honestly thought I could hear it coming all the way from Lincoln Center."
Hidden speakers within the back of the limousine began playing as the driver closed his partition, and the Metropolitan Opera came through crystal clear, with no sense of distance. The diva singing Lucia Lammermoor had finished her aria. "Who was that, anyway?"
"That was Naomi Bradleigh," said Isaac. "If you decide to work for me, you will meet her. You'll have no trouble recognizing my daughter; she has her father's eyes."
Sure she had heard a touch of melancholy in his words, she asked, "Are you not close?"
"No," said Isaac, "Her mother could not raise her. While I could, I wanted her to have a childhood full of love and laughter. It was not something I could give her, and I wanted her to grow up to be a better person than I am. Besides, it was soon obvious that she had somewhat of her mother's temperament and inclinations." He waved a dismissive hand, as if to put aside the past. "No doubt you'll find out for yourself. In the meantime, let's enjoy the opera.
"You mean the intermission? Would you mind telling me who she was?"
Isaac's expression darkened a moment, a momentary shadow of annoyance that narrowed his eyes and set his lips in a thin, pale line. "Naomi herself does not know. It is not my secret to reveal."
Annelise fell silent, afraid even to apologize, until the limousine finally stopped and the driver opened the door for her. Looking up, Annelise gazed at a garden spire looming over her. "This is the Hanging Garden. You know Tamara Gellion?"
Isaac nodded. "We're acquainted. She is one of the sisters I mentioned."
Most of the lights inside the Hanging Garden were off for the night, and a soft chorus of nightbirds and nocturnal insects surrounded Annelise as she followed Isaac inside. The scents of a thousand different flowers teased at her, tempting her to linger until she had sampled each, but Isaac had gently taken her hand and led her to the elevator. "Must we go up right away? I've never had a chance to visit before and it's beautiful."
He caressed the back of her hand with his thumb. "You should tell Tamara so. If she accepts you, you will doubtless see more of the place. In the meantime it will not do to keep the lady waiting. We too must honor hospitality."
The penthouse of Hanging Garden was itself a bower of roses in profusion and small red flowers that Annelise might have mistaken for forget-me-nots if not for their sanguine hue. She had knelt to more closely examine them, and was about to touch one when she heard a soft contralto voice behind her. "Refrain from touching the forgive-me-nots, if you please. Their petals are poisonous to the touch. The merest touch of a fingertip would see you hospitalized."
Springing to her feet, Annelise stepped away from the perilous blooms. "I'm sorry. I didn't know."
"How could you? They grow only here, out of all the Earth." Annelise turned toward the woman who had warned her. She was as tall as Isaac, and dressed all in black. Her cashmere turtleneck, slacks, and black leather ankle boots made Annelise feel woefully underdresed. Ink-black curls spilled over her shoulders, and Annelise found herself gazing up into slit-pupilled eyes of molten gold. The woman extended a hand in greeting. "Isaac mentioned you. You must be Annelise Copeland."
"I'm sorry, Ms. Gellion. Isaac brought me here directly from work."
"He might have had the decency to let you stop at home to change out of those work clothes," suggested a paler, more petite version of Tamara. She wore her hair in a sable pageboy, and favored an open-collared white blouse, a high-waisted black pencil skirt, and knee-high boots with stiletto heels. "Knowing Isaac, however, I suspect he wanted me to see you before you had a chance to doll up."
"Of course," the woman Tamara called sister extended a hand. "Hello, Ms. Copeland. I'm Elisabeth Bathory."
The name rang a bell, but Annelise suspected it would be unwise to mention the association that sprang to mind. Instead, she looked from Elisabeth to Tamara. "Isaac said you were sisters—"
"Since we took our husbands' lives and fortunes," said Elisabeth, "it only seemed fair to keep their names."
"Fair, and convenient," said Tamara. "But these names are aliases, as is Isaac Magnin's. Now, come with me, please."
Annelise followed Tamara and her sister. It occurred to her that Isaac had left her alone with these dark sisters, whom he had described as perilous beauties with what she admitted was good cause. When Tamara stopped, it was to show Annelise a violin resting in its case. "Play something for me, please."
Annelise picked up the violin, and almost dropped it instead of tucking it beneath her chin when she realized what she held. "This is a Stradivarius. I can't play /this/."
"Nevertheless, you shall," said Tamara, her voice taking on a sharp-edged tone of command. A metronome began to tick a slow beat. "It is part of the role Isaac Magnin means for you to play. Now, do your best."
Putting her bow to an open G string, Annelise worked her way up the G major scale in three octaves, switching from first position to second and third as needed. Once she was finished, she worked her way back down the minor scale. Since Tamara did not snatch the instrument from her hands, she tried playing some arpeggios, changing the rhythm and tempo and varying her bowing technique between a gentle legato and an almost percussive staccato until her bow hand began to ache and the fingertips on her other hand threatened to split open and bleed all over the strings.
"Good," said Tamara. Taking the violin from Annelise, she replaced it in its case and locked it tightly. "Your technique is in dire need of refinement, but you've a sense of rhythm and you aren't tone-deaf. You'll not be the worst student I've ever had."
A soft hand caressed Annelise's shoulder as Elisabeth drew close. "That is higher praise from my sister than it sounds. She taught Niccolo Paganini, you know."
"She doesn't look it," blurted Annelise, unsure if she had just made a dire mistake. Tamara Gellion looked to be in her early forties at most, and hers were the early forties of a woman possessed of sufficient privilege for work to be more diversion than necessity.
"Do I?" Elisabeth's gaze held Annelise, a pale amber to Tamara's molten gold, and her fingertips gently grasped her chin.
"No," said Annelise. "But you look like you want to kiss me, and you aren't my type."
"And who is your type?" Elisabeth's tone was flirtatious, as if Annelise had not just rejected her. A slow, rich smile curved her lips. "Ah, you like pretty boys. Isaac might be pleased."
"Might?" said Isaac. "Is something wrong, Elisabeth?"
She gave a low, throaty chuckle. "She might be a little too taken with /you/ for your purposes." Giving Annelise a sidelong glance, she added, "Be gentle with her. She's untouched, her fantasies full of wild ideas and big white beds."
Annelise turned away from Isaac, embarrassed by the assessment and its truth, but Isaac made no comment. Instead, he seemed to have turned his attention to Tamara. "Can you work with her? She doesn't have to serve as first violin for the New York Philharmonic. Remember that Morgan Cooper is just a metalhead who can barely read staff notation."
"Morgan Cooper?" said Annelise.
"She'll do," said Tamara. "Give her the dossier and begin telling her what she needs to know."
As Tamara left the alcove cradling the Stradivarius with which Annelise had proved her mettle, she stared at Isaac. "Did you say Morgan Cooper?"
"Yes," said Isaac, pulling a dossier from nowhere. "Were you acquainted?"
"No," said Annelise. She had never known him, but she had known of him. "He was the boy who threw himself into a burning building to rescue a family the firefighters on the scene had written off, and got most of them out."
Isaac's smile was a knowing one, as if he were thoroughly acquainted with the man in the dossier. "He still hurls himself headlong into the occasional inferno as one of the Phoenix Society's sworn Adversaries. He is your target."