VAULTS OF POWER
Marseilles, France, Hôpital de La Timone, fourth floor. Robyn pushed open the wide bedroom door. The smell of formalin and heat and suffering hit her stomach. She froze in the middle of the room. A life monitor beat a sick rhythm. Light seeped through a dirty window. A duffel bag with an airline tag slouched under a tired chair. A huge lump filled the bed.
Under an arch keeping the sheet off her body lay Sybil, her skull wrapped in bandages, streaks of hair matted against her shiny forehead, lips thin, cheeks hollow, nose swollen.
Under the thin, purple eyelids, the eyeballs moved wildly.
Robyn took two steps to the foot of the bed. “Billy,” she whispered.
The eyeballs steadied. “Don’t. Call. Me. illy.”
Excellent. Hearing: check. Understanding: check. Fighting spirit: check. Sybil was going to pull out of this. Robyn steadied her hands on the railing. Focused on the patch of light on the sheet. “You made my day,” she said, her voice as cheerful as she could. “You look like shit.”
A sharp exhale. Sybil chuckling. “Lastic urgery,” she mumbled.
For the first time in many years she wanted to hug her twin, sit on her bed and feel her warm, firm, live body. For the first time she wanted to say I love you. So she said, “What the hell happened?”
The door opened brutally, and a draft lightened the air. A nurse walked in briskly, half-yelled “Bonjour” and read the vitals dangling off the foot of the bed. “How are we doing today?” She spoke French, and Robyn was grateful for the summers spent in Quebec.
“She’ll be fine,” Robyn said. “Where is the AC control?”
“Mademoiselle. She was beaten, branded, thrown in a dry well in the Chateau d’If, covered with stones. And she can’t remember any of it.”
Some kind of medical admin with a dash of psychological training had walked her through her sister’s ordeal earlier. The memory loss was not worrisome in itself. But it probably came from a head injury, a major trauma, or both. It could be short term, or not.
“As for AC,” the nurse continued, “open the window.” She started pulling the sheet off the arch. “You can stay if you want, but you probably shouldn’t,” she said.
Sybil was naked. Both feet were wrapped in thick bandages and the legs were a brownish red from iodine and bruises and large scrapes and cuts with stitches. A large gauze seeped pus on her thigh. Her chest bore red horizontal streaks. There was another patch of gauze under her left breast.
With her hands on her hips she watched the nurse’s routine. “We’ll get you outta here asap,” she said to Sybil.
The nurse moved to the other side of the bed. Assessed Robyn top to bottom. “You identical twins?”
Yes, they were. Hard to believe, the way Sybil looked now. “I work outdoors,” Robyn said. It was starting to make a difference. The last six months she’d been hauling cases and pulling ropes like any other man on the boat. Diving every single day. She didn’t bother smoothing her calloused hands, fixing her broken nails, or concealing the little scars that drew white webs here and there. She didn’t have time for that. And besides, from her long, tan legs to her tiny navel to her full breasts, no matter how basic she dressed, she was getting more hard, long gazes than ever. Remaining raw woman was almost a protection. Sometimes a weapon, depending on the guy. Depending on her mood.
She wore her sun-bleached hair in a haphazard chignon and heavy mascara out of a habit started too young. Pretty much, she’d discarded any exterior signs of her upbringing. She’d discarded anything that went in the way of her current business.
“Treasure hunter.” Even her voice, stranded from shouting orders, had become raspy. She looked like a Gipsy and felt just as free.
The nurse seemed to think about it. “How did you become a treasure hunter?”
“Studied history. Taught middle school. Started on a PhD. Then just had to get out there, be my own boss.”
The nurse dabbed some ointment and the smell assailed Robyn with its cohort of memories. She was eight or nine years old and she was the one in the hospital bed, surrounded by this sweet and acrid odor, pretending to be asleep. Her father was hissing, “No more hiking. No more climbing. And no more tree houses. From now on Sybil, you’re keeping a close eye on your sister. Anything else happens to her, you’re the one in trouble. She goes where you go, you go where she goes. You’re like the two sides of the same coin. You’re not Sybil and Robyn. You’re Janice.” And he did call them Janice from then on, only it was really Janus, but Robyn didn’t understand that until much, much later.
In between, after their parents died, she outgrew Sybil. She didn’t know how or why it happened. That was just the way things turned out. She became Robyn, a woman in full, not the flip side of a coin or the back of a fucked-up god or the shadow of the supposedly successful twin. She drove her life however she pleased.
Now she was feeling every wound in Sybil’s body as her own. Now she was feeling the intimate connection she had worked on ignoring. Now she was feeling the sense of responsibility that Sybil had taken too seriously, too young.
The sight and feel and notion of Sybil being attacked while she should have been with her stirred up emotions she did not care to name but she knew damn well were going to take her very far.
The nurse started removing the gauze under Sybil’s left breast. She wiped her face against her shoulder. Focused back. Using long tweezers, she peeled off the last layer of gauze, heavily laden with an oily ointment, and said, “C’est joli.”
Pretty? She probably meant it was healing well. “Is that where she was burned?”
Robyn forced herself to look over the nurse’s shoulder. Felt a stab of pain in her own chest. And anger rising.
It was the size of a hand. A big hand. Brownish red. Some spots, the skin was bubbling off. Some, it was bright pink. Here and there, a yellowish fluid oozed out.
It had a distinct shape. A branding all right. Like what they did on cattle. Sweet, soft, gentle Sybil. Branded like cattle. Robyn couldn’t keep her eyes off the branding.
It was a sign, or a symbol. Like an elaborate letter pi, with loops where the lines intersected. On each side, there was a star with rounded tips, or maybe a flower with sharp petals.
While the nurse changed the dressing, she drew the symbol on the back of her boarding pass.
The nurse pulled the sheet back on the arch, then adjusted the IV. “The police are waiting outside.”
Robyn flattened the creases of the sheet, then stroked it. “Good.”
“God willing,” she said, patting Robyn’s arm, “they will find the criminals who did this.”
“God always needs a little help.”
Seconds later two men were standing in front of her. “Gendarmerie Nationale,” they said. They were strapped in navy blue uniforms. Spoke in voices trained for authority. There was an older guy and a younger guy. The older guy did the talking. The younger guy absorbed the technique. First, small talk. The trip, the country. Sybil’s condition. Polite questions.
Robyn was no fool. There was no display of sympathy there. They had a plan, and they were rolling it out. Fair enough.
She had one too. “So what’s the sign?” she asked. “Signature? Gang?”
“We ask the questions.” The younger guy, arrogant.
The older guy raised a pacifying hand. “What sign?”
He shrugged. “Does your sister belong to a cult?”
“Of course not.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“She’s my twin.”
“You know everything she does?”
“What was she doing at the Banque des Deux Rives?”
“Banque des Deux Rives.”
“Never heard the name.”
“Are you refusing to answer the question?”
“I said I don’t know the bank.”
“You said you know everything your sister does.”
What the hell is going on? “She needed cash?”
“What was the purpose of her travel?”
“Visiting… touring,” she said. “Why?”
The younger gendarme reached behind him and handed her a small suitcase she hadn’t noticed yet. “Your sister’s personal belongings.”
She didn’t even know at which hotel Sybil was staying. How could a quick trip turn into this nightmare? “What happened to her?”
The older gendarme tilted his head and sighed.
The rookie tugged at his ear. “There’s some talk of a cult.”
“It’s only talk,” the older gendarme said. “We’re investigating this.”
“Talk?” Robyn said.
“A tip of the crazy guide who looks after the Chateau d’If. We’re looking into it. We’re looking into a lot of things.” He clapped his hands together and rubbed them, time-to-get-back-to-the-wife fashion. “There are a couple of papers we kept for analysis. We’ll notify you when you can come and get them. Your phone number?”
“Your phone number, please.”
She gave it to him. “What papers?”
He scribbled the number on his notepad and straightened himself in a sort of salute. “We ask the questions.”
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