IT WAS AN entirely unrealistic number of rats for a civilized age. Rats were a Biblical problem. The corners of jail cells, the shadows of granaries, rippling across Egyptian streets chattering of madness and the wrath of the Lord. Not in this middle-class villa Oscar had rented a few miles outside Napoli, unremarkable in every way imaginable. Every way except for the rats. Mark that down on the list of things to ask the landlord specifically next time.
“They should be here soon,” Bosie said from the bay window. He sat with his feet on the cushion and his knees toward his chest, leaning back on his hands. A small-gauge pistol lay across his lap. With his golden hair still tousled from sleep, he looked like a shepherd in white linen. The pastoral ideal, if one managed to ignore the pistol.
“So you said,” Oscar replied. “An hour ago.” He slumped down further in the chair, until the collar of his dressing-gown bunched around his ears.
A rat scuttled out of the west wall, questing for crumbs. No doubt it would find plenty. Bosie had breakfasted that morning on the sofa, reading the daily paper and shouting about the cricket scores. Oscar lifted his feet slightly, giving the rat room to get by.
Without a word, Bosie lifted the pistol, closed one eye like a Wild West sharpshooter, and fired off two rounds of lead. He missed the rat abysmally, leaving yet another blackened hole in the wallpaper.
Oscar showed no surprise, though the ice did clink against the walls of his glass. “Did you give them the right address?”
“I should think I know where we live—”
Another rat ventured out in search of crumbs.
Bosie’s next bullet struck the rat between the eyes. It collapsed in a spray of gray-scarlet brain matter, which splattered across Oscar’s slippers. Oscar swallowed a retch and wiped the slippers against the floor. For a while, prison had made him jumpier. Loud noises, bright lights, his name in a sharp tone. But after a few months, it faded into this gray cotton nothing that dulled the echoes and reflections around him. It was enough to make you want to scream, to fight, to kill someone, just to see if it would help.
“Did you really need to shoot it?” he asked.
Bosie laughed like his father. “Why, are you saving the bullets?”
Well, the day was young. And the world was wide. There were a thousand other places to go.
Bosie arched his back in a catlike stretch, and Oscar made a mental note to have words with Bosie’s tailor. Cream-colored trousers. If Judas had shown up at Calvary wearing cream-colored trousers that fit like that, Oscar had no doubt Christ would have taken him back, and kissed him like he meant it that time. Forgive him, Father, he knows not what he does, and while his brain isn’t deep enough to bury a grain of salt in, while he’s lifted his pieces of silver straight from my bankrupt pockets, I mean to say, Father, hast Thou seen those thighs—
“You might have drowned it,” Oscar said. “The neighbors will ask questions.”
Bosie grinned and stood up. “Trust me,” he said. “They won’t ask questions.”
Maybe. Take the landlord. If an Englishman had opened his door to find the decade’s most celebrated sinner asking for a room in the company of a golden-haired aristocrat who stood like someone was painting his portrait at all times, he’d have slammed the door in their faces. The Italians had only asked for two months’ rent, paid in advance, and a handshake to seal it.
The Villa Giudice wasn’t home, but that was part of the comfort. No one really wanted to die at home, not if they cared for the dramatic arc of their obituary. And how many bullets were left in Bosie’s pistol? Oscar would need four, to feel sure of doing the thing properly. After prison, his hands shook, and he wanted a backup for each shot to make sure they landed cleanly. Yes, four would do. This little rotting villa lacked the ambiance for a good Shakespearian end, but actors had made do with worse sets. Worse places to die than indoors, in a comfortable dressing-gown, listening to the sea applaud. If one forgot about the rats, and the feast that would await them after the final shot.
“Goddamn,” Bosie snarled, and reached back toward the window-seat.
Oscar’s unfinished glass of whiskey, beside his chair, shattered. He shouted and leapt up, watching the amber stain pool across
“What in hell—”
“Sorry,” Bosie said, setting the pistol aside. “Another one. Missed.”
“You could have killed me.”
Bosie smiled and tugged Oscar up from his chair, twined both arms around his waist. “You’re harder than that to kill.”
It was witchcraft how he did this. You couldn’t be angry with a man who didn’t understand. A man who took unpleasant things and pushed them to the side, because life was beautiful and glittering when he only thought of things that pleased him. And Oscar pleased him. Now. You could see yourself differently, that way. Oscar let Bosie nestle against his shoulder, and ran one hand through Bosie’s hair, breathing in deep, eyes closed, and there was a sort of ecstasy in this, a wild blinding one, a clarity.
Knocking, it seemed, wasn’t part of the plan.
Oscar flushed red and shoved Bosie’s hands away, quadrupling the space between them. A middle-aged woman strolled into the parlor and nodded at both of them as if she walked in on scenes like this every day. She wore three scarves in iridescent colors, an astonishing number of beads, and a violet dress showing a healthy plunge of décolletage. With her confident, unhurried movement, she reminded Oscar of a beetle, scuttling along a rock.
“Buongiorno,” Oscar said tartly. He straightened his dressing-gown, then turned to Bosie. “I’m sorry, are we running a halfway house for old women?”
“Don’t be clever,” Bosie said. “It’s too early in the day.”
“Who is she?” Oscar said, gesturing.
At that moment, Oscar desperately wished Bosie had not shot his whiskey.
“A witch,” he repeated. “Christ, Bosie, you told me you’d hired an exterminator.”
“I told you I’d hired someone to take care of it,” Bosie said.
“The young gentleman mentioned you have a rat problem,” the woman said, in accented English. She pointedly avoided looking at the rat-brains seeping into the carpet.
“We do,” Oscar said. “It appears we also have a witch problem.”
“I’m sorry to keep you waiting,” the witch said. She dropped her leather handbag on the sofa, then snapped it open. “Shall we get down to business?”
There was a we now. The whiskey sat unpleasantly in the pit of Oscar’s stomach.
“Don’t let us get in your way,” Bosie said brightly.
From the handbag, the witch unearthed candle after candle, each within a clear glass jar. She arranged them around the parlor in an uneven circle before taking out a book of matches. The first one failed to light, but the second one caught, and once the match burned to risk singeing her fingers, she shook it out and lit the rest with the first candle. The scent of the candles—no two quite the same—reminded Oscar of the cloud of perfume that filled St. Andrew’s when Constance used to drag him to services. Reminded him of Bosie’s gold-tipped French cigarettes, imported en masse for their alleged superiority. Maybe there was a touch of God in this smoke as well.
“You really think this will work,” Oscar murmured.
“It might, mightn’t it?” Bosie said, as though he were the reasonable one and not the one who’d brought in a witch. “We’ve tried everything else. Tried traps, tried poison—”
“Tried shooting them with a pistol.” Bosie had always been selectively tone-deaf.
“Yes. So we might as well try this.”
Oscar closed his eyes and thanked God he’d started drinking early. Not that there was enough whiskey in the world for this. Christ had the right of it, turning water into wine. A frightful lush, the savior, but it made it easier to put up with the small-minded people one could not stop oneself from adoring, from fucking, from wanting to murder. Easier, through the fog, not to see the witch bustling about, making obscure signs in front of each window. Easier not to hear Bosie humming a tune from some filthy cabaret.
Oscar was so consumed with not-hearing and not-seeing that he was completely unprepared when the witch began to scream.
He stumbled back, almost tripping over the blasted rat corpse. The witch continued to scream, the pitch consistent, a wild vibrato tremor. The scream took a sharp glissando down, landing lower than her speaking voice, and in a language Oscar didn’t recognize. She stood in the candlelit circle, which shed no light because it was eleven o’clock on a Wednesday, and rhythmic nonsense syllables poured from her cracked lips.
The horror faded fast. The woman was a parlor-trick exorcist, he could see that now. One of those who visited salons to conjure spirits for idle socialites. No power, only toothless spectacle. Bosie snickered. Jeering at the wild old woman performing a trick no one believed anymore. In her chanting, Oscar heard Lear screaming on the heath, Christ cursing on the hill. The candles’ heat was unbearable.
He stood up. Bosie stared at him, though the witch didn’t stop her chanting. Oscar stepped over the candles and into the hall, pausing only to stamp out the tongue of flame that caught the hem of his dressing-gown. The hall fell away under his feet, and then the threshold, and then he was outside, the grass damp beneath his slippers, and he did not stop until he reached the rocks that lined the shore, where he sank down, breathing hard, the dizziness in his brain not entirely from the whiskey.
The old woman would have been a showstopper in Tite Street. She’d have drawn every eye, ladies and gentlemen gaping as she chanted. There, at the dawn of the ‘90s, she’d have commanded true magic. Here, at the death of a century, she looked pale, used-up. Cracked.
He would go. He would. He should have at the first. Where? It didn’t matter. Anywhere but this Italian villa swarming with rats, where Bosie’s smile was still here to corrupt—
He closed his eyes and groaned to the white-capped waves. Corruption had never been the answer. In fact, it had been many years since he’d known the question.
Oscar wasn’t good-looking, not in his prime and certainly not fifteen years after it. He wasn’t a handsome, stupid man of twenty-two; he was a brilliant, homely man of thirty-seven. He’d seen it from their first meeting in Chelsea: that revulsion in Bosie’s eyes, those tightening lips, as if to say who is this sad old man, and what does he want with me? It was Oscar who’d insisted. He dazzled, made sure to, dropped enough quips to fill a play. Cleverness wasn’t beauty, but it was something to fight with. And he had. He’d played the long game and won it, through will and sweat and wit. How Bosie laughed back then. Not his father’s laugh but the charming one, the one that rippled across Oscar’s skin like the sea.
A laugh he’d thought he’d give anything for. Much easier to promise the world when you still had the world to give.
Minutes inched by. Perhaps twenty. It was hard to tell against the rhythm of the sea, where everything felt smooth, connected. Tossed on the sea, a fishing skiff reeled in its nets some fifty yards offshore. The rope landed on the deck with a wet thud Oscar thought he could hear.
“So that’s where you’ve gone.”
Oscar didn’t turn. Some things didn’t need to be seen.
“She’s still at it, you know,” Bosie said. “It’s quite something.”
“It won’t work.” “Not with that attitude.” Oscar turned to the sea, listening to the gulls scream.
Bosie sighed. Without looking, Oscar could see him tucking his hands into the pockets of his trousers, scuffing one foot along the grass like a child playing football with a stone. “Well,” he said.
Oscar knew the meaning of that well.
“We can’t not pay her,” Bosie said, still avoiding eye contact.
“I promised her fifteen lire.”
Oscar raised his eyebrows. “Last I knew, you’d stolen my wallet to buy drinks.”
A blush crept into Bosie’s cheeks. Oscar hated him for it. He could have withstood anything, hardened his heart to anything, except contrition.
Without a word, Oscar reached into the pocket of his dressing-gown. From a small roll of loose bills growing smaller by the day, he peeled out three notes and handed them over without speaking.
Bosie’s smile was luminous. “You’re a gem,” he said. “Come here.”
He wasn’t going to. He wouldn’t. Oscar would not come closer, and yet there they were anyway, and Oscar gritted his teeth as Bosie’s soft hands massaged his shoulders through the fabric of the dressing-gown. It hurt, the firm rotating motions of those otherwise delicate hands. It felt like Bosie was unspooling each of his nerves, one at a time. His dressing-gown fluttered backward behind him, and for a brief, wild moment, it felt like wings. It would always be like this. This drifting away and flying back, this sweetness and its underlying ache, the soft fabric edged with flame. The rush of the gray waves, and above them, the gulls, screaming.
“Don’t stay out much longer,” Bosie murmured. His lips were just beneath Oscar’s ear. The vibration of his breath. A note they had struck before, again and again. “You’ll catch a chill. I worry, you know.”
Oscar shivered. Betrayed by his own muscles under Bosie’s soft hands. “I know you do.”
Bosie kissed Oscar on the cheek. Oscar kept his eyes on the sea.
When he turned back, Bosie had disappeared inside. He’d left the door open. Through it, the shadow of a rat bolted toward freedom. First one, its nose cocked upward. Sniffing the air for a sign, for safety. It reared up slightly, then tore forward, skittering into the underbrush.
A pause, then two more. Then four. Then seven. Then, as Oscar watched, a wave of dark brown bodies and clawed feet spilled from the Villa Giudice, tripping over one another to reach safe ground. He took a step back, nearer to the sea, and watched the mass of vermin spread out across the grass and disappear into the porous landscape. Until they were gone. In less than five minutes, the doorway was empty again. The distant sound of two voices poured through the open door. A thin plume of smoke from the candles trickled through an open window. In Oscar’s mind, it smelled of incense.
Allison Epstein is the author of the forthcoming historical thriller 'A Tip for the Hangman' (Doubleday ’21), about the life and death of Christopher Marlowe. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Northwestern University and a B.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan. Allison lives in Chicago, where she works as a copywriter and makes friends with other people’s dogs. She’s probably posting a bad pun on Twitter right now @rapscallison.
© 2020 Allison Epstein