"He that falls into sin is a man; that grieves at it, is a saint; that boasteth of it, is a devil.”
"It's a heart."
Kennan turned the Valentine card over in his hand. "It doesn't look anything like a heart," he said.
"No one would want to buy it if it looked like a real heart," said Brigid, stretching out on the seat; her long legs took up most of one side of the limo. Kennan sat opposite her, holding the valentine with the tips of two fingers like a used tissue, while Ailbe sat in the other corner, looking out the window and saying nothing. Outside was Rome.
"I got it in St. Bathans," Brigid said. "You could say thank you, since I bought it just for you, because it’s Valentine’s Day tomorrow. It means I think you're special. You can tell because it says 'You're Special.' Right there in the heart."
Kennan looked at Ailbe. "How far to the hotel?"
"It's on the Via Babuino," said Ailbe. He was still looking out the window.
"Is this champagne? Kennan, there's champagne!" Brigid held up the bottle.
"I see that," Kennan said and turned back to Ailbe. "So who is this friend we're meeting?"
"His name's Inus," Ailbe said. "He's some kind of promoter. We only met once."
"You only met him once but he paid for the limo to pick us up from the airport?" said Brigid. "That was nice of him. Kennan, don't you think that was nice of him?"
"He got interested after I told him about our family's problem—"
"You told him?!" Kennan said, choking. Even Brigid went pale.
"Not the whole thing," Ailbe rushed to add. "Not, you know, what it actually is. But I told him the bit about Valentine's Day. In general terms."
"How general?" said Kennan.
"You shouldn't have told him anything at all," said Kennan.
"I know that," said Ailbe. "It was an...awkward situation. I don't really want to talk about it." Brigid peered very closely; was Ailbe blushing? "The point is he can get us to the saint. We're meeting for dinner tonight."
Then the champagne cork popped and wine fountained onto the leather seats and Brigid laughed. "Don't open that!" Ailbe said. Brigid giggled. The bottle was still in her hands the bubbles tickling her fingers. Ailbe sighed. "You shouldn't have done that," he said.
"Why not?" said Brigid. "They must have expected we'd drink it if they put it in here. Are there glasses?"
"Here," Kennan said. Ailbe gave him a dirty look but he shrugged. "Well we can't un-open it now," Kennan said. He let Brigid fill his glass halfway, but Ailbe refused his. Brigid pouted.
"Don't be a beast," she said. "We're family and we haven't seen each other in ages. And we're in Rome—Rome! Have some fun already."
"We're not here for fun," Ailbe said.
"Family business can be still fun," Brigid said. Kennan passed her a glass but she took a drink out of the bottle instead. It fizzled on her tongue. "Besides, I had a birthday a week ago and you never even called me. Not that I'm mad; I don't expect you to remember. Nobody ever remembers."
"You don't remember ours," said Ailbe.
"Maura's is February 1st," Brigid said, "and she's 49. Ailbe yours is February 29th, and you'll be 42. Kennan yours is the 22nd and you'll be 35. And of course I'm 28 now. See, I know the whole family, so that means you have to help me drink this, to console me for my brothers not calling me on my birthday, not that I expected them to and by the way I'm not even a little mad."
She handed Ailbe a glass and he took it, but didn't drink. Brigid stretched all the way out so that when she drank from the bottle it spilled a little; she liked the feeling of the bubbles fizzing on the sinews of her neck. "I wish Maura was here," she said.
"She has a family of her own to think about," said Ailbe. "The twins are seven now. This'll be their first year."
"Poor little pups," said Brigid. Then she sat up. "But if the saint helps then maybe it won't be their first year. Maybe it won't happen at all this year, or ever again! And then we can be a real family who calls each other on their birthdays and visits on holidays and everything." She looked at Kennan. "Wouldn't that be wonderful?"
"Wonderful," Kennan said, drinking his entire glass all at once. "I still think this is a stupid idea."
Before Ailbe could reply the intercom buzzed and the driver informed them they'd arrived. Without waiting Brigid sprang from the limo and let the Mediterranean sun shine on her long, bare limbs. "Rome!" she said again, "It's Rome, we're here, we're here!"
"Yes," said Kennan, climbing out of the limo after her, "it's Rome." He shrugged. And Ailbe sighed.
Dinner at il Sanlorenzo: shimmering crystal chandeliers, wine goblets so clear they were scarcely visible, and small portions of steaming shellfish so richly seasoned Brigid almost couldn't put them in her mouth. She ate flats of raw oysters, hot and sweet; Kennan cracked crab legs with his fingers and drew the meat out with his teeth, working his way down each segment and leaving the broken bits in a porcelain dish; Ailbe's scabbard fish still had its head on and stared up at him with one glum, yellow eye. He wasn't eating.
Inus was in his early 40s, with a high forehead and salt and pepper beard. He wore a tightly fitting suit with a dove-grey undershirt and silver cufflinks, and ate a plate of pasta garnished with raw sea urchins. "Most of the fish here is served raw," he explained, stabbing one with his fork.
"I like raw," said Brigid, dropping an oyster shell. Inus smiled at her.
"And we're actually sitting on the ruins of the Theater of Pompey right now," he added. His accent was not Italian
"Respectful," said Kennan. He cracked a crab claw. Inus smiled again.
"I'm not really one for taboos. I think I told Ailbe that when we met." Ailbe blushed again and tried to hide it in his wine glass. "How do you like the hotel?"
"Kennan's room is bigger than mine," Brigid said. She stuck her lower lip out for a second. "And his bed is springier. I tried to talk him into trading but he won't. Maybe we'll just have to share it."
Ailbe choked. Kennan said nothing. Inus chuckled. "So what do you do here?" Kennan said, brushing bits of crab shell off his sleeve.
"Imports, mostly," said Inus.
"Ailbe said you were a promoter. Which is it?"
"I'm sure he does both," Brigid said, before Inus had to answer. "I'm sure he does a lot of things. Oh, I'm out of wine and I'm out of oysters."
"We'll fix that," Inus said, signaling for a waiter. "And you're right, I do a lot of different things, including some promotions. But it's very special kinds of promotion: the quiet kind, for events that only want to attract certain kinds of people."
"Like this party tomorrow?" Brigid said.
"Yes, exactly. It's a small gathering I do every year at Valentine's Day for the benefit of certain charming and uninhibited individuals who ought to all get to know each other better in an illuminating atmosphere."
"Sounds like an orgy," Kennan said.
"It is," said Ailbe.
Without missing a beat Kennan said, "Guess I'll have to leave my wedding ring in the hotel."
"You'd probably have better luck if you kept it on," said Inus, and Brigid laughed very loud. "Anyway, you won't have to do anything you don't want to, but Ailbe said he thought you'd all be interested and I must say I was intrigued to meet his family."
"Will you be there?" Brigid said, leaning forward.
"I always attend."
"And will the saint be there?" Kennan said.
"I wouldn't leave out our guest of honor. Although I have never met anyone so interested.”
"It's a family thing. How much is this costing us?" said Kennan.
"That's already taken care of," Ailbe said. The waiter was refilling all of their glasses.
"But you took care of it with the foundation's money, so I still want to know."
"Don't be such a pill, Kennan," Brigid said, balling up her napkin and tossing it at him. "If you and Ailbe are going to argue go do it outside and let me enjoy myself. Go on, shoo, both of you; I want time alone with our host." She dragged her chair around to Inus' side of the table and picked an urchin off his plate.
Inus watched the brothers leave, frowning. "I hope there's no trouble. I thought everyone understood the particulars?"
"No trouble at all, they're always like that. If they didn't have something to argue about they'd make something up. They'll both be there tomorrow and so will I. I love Valentine's Day. Everyone else in the family hates it, but I love it. You're out of urchins."
"You're out of oysters."
"I'm not hungry now. Do you live in Rome?"
"I live a lot of places, but this isn't one of them."
"So you have a hotel?"
"Is your room nicer than mine too?"
"Would you like to find out?"
"My hand is in your pocket."
"I'm looking for your room key."
"Have you found it?"
Brigid watched the champagne bubbles rise in her glass. "I think I'm drunk," she said.
"Is that so?" said Inus. The words were muffled, of course, since his face was buried in her crotch. She was naked on the bed of his penthouse suite except for her white stockings, and while Inus' beard scratched the inside of her thighs she sipped the champagne slowly, letting it run cool and easy down her throat.
"I had most of a bottle in the limo, and then three glasses of wine at dinner, and then..." She looked at the now-empty bottle lying on the bed, "However much of this. So yes. I think that does it."
Inus had, among other things, a rather versatile tongue and a nice-looking ass, and Brigid kept an eye on one while she enjoyed the other. The curtains were drawn but she could still imagine the great glistening panorama of Rome outside. It, more than the pleasing tickle of Inus' tongue up and down her cunt, gave her gooseflesh on her arms.
"This party tomorrow," she said, setting the empty glass on the nightstand. "Is it really going to be worth the trip? I've been thinking maybe I won't go."
"Your reservation is already paid for," Inus said. "It'll go to waste if you don't. And I think your brothers are counting on you being there."
"Kennan doesn't care where I am or what I'm doing, and Ailbe wants to see me at an orgy about as much as he wants to step on a light bulb." Her voice trembled as the tip of his tongue tickled the inside of her lips. "Do a circle like that again, please. Mmm. Good."
"They both seem to think it's very important that you're there. I still don't really understand why your brother is so interested. He doesn't seem the type."
"You're talking too much." She pushed on the back of his head and wrapped her legs around him, stretching out and twining her fingers through the lattice of the headboard. "It's because of Valentine's Day. There's a family superstition...we're not really supposed to talk about it, but bad things happen to us on Valentine's Day. They say it's a curse going all the way back to Old Rome. And do you know, it's really true?"
"Is that so?"
"No talking." He resumed his lapping and soon the room was filled with the scent of her wetness and the faint sound of his licking tongue. "Mmmph. Well yes, it's really true. I mean, I don't know about the exact story, so much, but it's true that bad things always happen to us on Valentine's Day. It's the hardest for poor Ailbe, for some reason."
"What about you?" Inus said. He rose from her, wiping his mouth on the back of his arm. Brigid crawled across the bed, taking his half-erect cock in her hands and squeezing the base of it.
"It's not as bad for me. Ailbe and I are...different sorts of animals. Under the skin." She licked up and down him. "Ailbe thinks the saint will help. I don't really know...but you're right, I should go along anyway. We're family. And I'm sure it'll be fun."
Inus chuckled. "What a mysterious lot you all are. And there are more like you? I think I'd like to meet the entire clan."
"All right, but you can't fuck Kennan, he doesn't go that way. Did you fuck Ailbe?" She teased one of his balls with her tongue, then the other, and then licked up to the base of the shaft and around it. "He has a wife; her name's Natalia. But I always figured he didn't really like women that way. He never talks about it, though."
"If I had, I'm sure he wouldn't want me to talk about it either."
With practiced assurance Brigid popped the head of his cock into her mouth and slid down it while her tongue slithered along the sides. Wrapping her mouth as tight around him as she could she slurped all the way up and then down again, squeezing his shaft with the rippling cushion of her lips. While this happened she traced a line on the backs of his thighs with her fingernails, tickling the delicate hairs there and letting the pulse of his blood fill her mouth.
"What about you?" he said. "Is there anyone back home?"
She slid him out again, making a little popping sound when the head left her mouth. "I was going around New Zealand with Saint Cecilia's Bloody Heart. That's a band. The drummer's my boyfriend, mostly. We might be broken up now but I'm not really sure. Does it matter?"
Pleased with the way her spit made the tip of his cock gleam she licked it again, swirling her tongue around the tip and flicking the opening before flipping over onto all fours and wiggling her hips. She grabbed the headboard and grunted as he pushed into her from behind; he was not the most deft and refined of lovers when it came to the big finish. Still, the steady, reliable rhythm of his still-wet cock pumping in and out of her and the added force of his hands grabbing her shoulders and pulling her onto him sent a tight quiver through her insides, and when he came it was a hot squirt deep inside that made him flag only for a few seconds before picking up the pace again. By the end she was at least bruised in the right places.
The air in the room felt sticky, so they moved to the shower, Brigid stripping off her stockings and letting the hot water run over her while Inus' large hands soaped her body, taking particular time cupping and squeezing her breasts.
"Let's see, what else is there to say about us? Kennan is some kind of contractor out in San Luis Obispo; restores old buildings, I think. And you know Ailbe, he does investing with the family money, I think in St. Petersburg now. I'm not sure what else to tell you. None of us talk that much.”
She turned, slipping her arms around his waste and squeezing his ass with both hands while she kissed him, tasting the wine on his breath. She caught a glimpse of herself in the rapidly fogging mirror and frowned. “Oh God, what time is it?"
"It must be just past midnight," he said, bending to kiss her neck.
"That means it's Valentine's Day.” She watched her reflection fog over. “I think this is going to be one of those very bad years…”
"Can I take the blindfold off yet?" Brigid said.
Agnes giggled. "We're not supposed to, but I already did."
"Why didn't you say anything?"
More giggling. "Because it was funnier this way."
Brigid tsked and took the blindfold off, but outside the car windows it was so dark she could hardly see anything anyway. "Is this a park?"
"It's a cemetery," said Agnes. "Well sort of. Just sit back and relax." She patted Brigid on the knee. They sat side by side in a town car with a mute driver ferrying them to whatever mysterious locale Inus had set up for the Valentine's Day party. Kennan and Ailbe were in a separate car, and Brigid had ended up in the leftover vehicle with Agnes, a chipper 20-something Greek girl also on the guest list. "Inus sets us up some place new every year."
"You've done this before?"
"Oh yes," Agnes nodded several times. "I go to lots of Inus' parties because he does work for my father and because he always picks the best spots for them. We had a Christmas party in the Basilica of St. Paul a few months ago. I sucked his cock in front of the Holy Door."
"How'd he arrange that?"
"He asked me to."
"I meant about the cathedral."
"Well, getting into these things costs so much because he has to pay off a lot of people, including the Vatican police. Inus says bribing people is much harder than you think: You have to be the kind of person people want to accept a bribe from. It's really amazing what he can do."
"I guess it is. I think I've decided I don't like him though,"
"I usually stop liking someone after I sleep with them. It's my nature." Brigid peered out the window. "It's getting so late..."
"You can't have a party like this during the day."
"I'm just worried about my brothers. This is a bad day for them."
"Are you all right, dear? You're looking a little flustered."
"Sometimes it's a bad day for me too."
They stopped and the driver helped them out. Another car had expelled three or four other people, including Ailbe and Kennan, and they all found themselves in a little green grove separated from the street by a stone wall, and there was a metal door set into what looked like the side of a grassy hill—but perhaps not a normal hill? It had an odd shape. Excusing herself from Agnes, Brigid made her way over to her brothers.
"Have you met Agnes?" she said. "Her father is some kind of broker in Santorini. I think—oh my God, Kennan, are you all right?"
He was sweating and red-faced, and he seemed ready to double over in pain. As she watched he trembled like the last leaf on a tree and Ailbe patted him on the back over and over, telling him to breathe.
"Jesus, he's got it bad this time," Brigid said, dropping down to look him in the eyes. "Kennan, do you need us to take you away?"
"No," he managed to say.
"You just have to keep it together for another hour," Ailbe said. "Can you do that? We're all holding it back. It's just as bad for everyone."
Kenna nodded, but he didn't look confident. His eyes were jaundiced. Brigid pulled Ailbe to the side and whispered. "How are you holding up?"
"I can keep it off. We just have to make it through the dinner. Things will be fine then."
"Ailbe, I don't know if this is a good idea, especially not with how bad Kennan is. Inus is kind of a creep—"
“You didn’t think so last night.”
“I’m allowed to change my mind. How is this party really going to help us?”
“If we leave now we’ll never get this close to the saint again. We've already come this far and…I really think everything will be all right. I do. But I can't do this alone.”
Brigid sighed, but she squeezed his hand back. "Then we'll do it together. I just hope it's worth it. There's going to be a lot of people around..."
The driver unlocked the door in the hill with an old, heavy key and indicated that they should all get in and out of sight as quickly as they could. Inside was a cave-like anteroom of limestone walls and uneven tiles in a clay floor. The roof was low and a draft came up from below. Each of them held a candle and in the flickering yellow light of it Brigid saw Agnes wink at her. They formed a procession down the earthen steps and the dark, narrow tunnels yawned open below them. Something like shelves were dug into the walls and Brigid’s heart jumped up when she recognized the empty sockets of a skull staring out at her. It's a catacomb, she realized.
Kennan made a sound like a whimper. Come on big brother, keep it together, she thought. Agnes tittered at the ancient bones. "You'll find the basilica more comfortable than this," the driver said. "Just ahead."
A draft made the candles flutter out; Agnes screamed and then laughed and in the dark grabbed Brigid's hand and Brigid took her arm, leading her on. There was light up ahead and as they turned the corner and passed through the portico and into the nave the room did indeed broaden and the roof rose and the air grew artificially warm. Brigid saw that lights and heaters had been smuggled in, and expensive rugs laid on the floor, and incense burned to chase off the must of the crypt, and in the center of the tomb was a long table set with glassware and silver and a half dozen waiters standing by. Inus' white teeth almost glowed as he smiled.
"Our last guests have arrived," he said. "As I was explaining just now: A sufficient degree of refined decadence makes any setting fashionable."
A half dozen or so people evenly split between men and women were in the midst of dinner already. Agnes and Brigid sat next to each other while Ailbe and Kennan sat across from them. Ailbe had to help Kennan into his seat and the woman next to him looked concerned and even scooted away an inch. The waiters were pouring wine; Brigid still had a mild hangover from the previous day but didn't stop them from filling her glass, and the smell of roasted lamb made her mouth water. She'd eaten nothing all day.
"...did you know that?" Agnes was saying. Brigid blinked.
"I'm sorry, I wasn't paying attention?"
"I said that on Valentine's Day they used to whip women. The Romans did, I mean. It wasn't called Valentine's Day back then, but anyway, it's when they did the whipping."
"What had they done?"
"Oh, it wasn't a punishment. It was supposed to make them more fertile for the spring. It sounds like fun. Inus told me about it."
"I imagine. Speaking of which," Brigid raised her voice a little so that Inus could hear her: "I love what you've done with the place."
Inus swallowed his wine. "Some things are worth doing right. You realize why we're here?"
"The company?" She gestured with her glass to the piles of skulls.
"These are the Catacombs of San Valentino, where the saint's body was first laid to rest after his untimely beheading at the Via Flaminia. Most of him isn't here anymore, but even so, a fine setting for a special occasion."
"Which reminds me," Brigid said, slicing through tender lamb meat with a very sharp knife and selecting the choicest bits to pop into her mouth. "You promised us the saint would be in attendance. Everyone else remembers hearing that?"
The guests all murmured assent. Ailbe tensed; Kennan looked even more ill. Inus only shrugged.
"Well, I didn't promise I'd produce all of him..."
He retrieved a sandalwood box carved with roses and birds and inlaid with glass, and inside, resting on velvet, was a fragment of yellowed bone. He passed it to Brigid, who held it with the tips of her fingers. "Is it real?" she said.
"It had better be for what I paid for it. It's supposed to be in a church in Prague, but they switched it for a fake."
"How do you know you don't have the fake?" Brigid said.
"Ah, there's the rub," said Inus. "But I trust the people I do business with. And now we can say that Saint Valentine himself attended our orgy, even if there wasn’t enough of him left to get in on the action?”
Laughter all around. Agnes peered at it. "Which bit of him is it?"
"Part of the foot, as near as I can tell. I asked if we could have something nearer the crotch but I don't think they took me seriously."
Brigid examined the reliquary. It didn't seem to be locked, so she opened the lid and, over Inus' objections, picked up the bit of bone. It was not as light as she'd expected. The chatter of the diners and the clink of dishes ceased as everyone watched, wondering what she might do.
She looked at Ailbe; he nodded. And so Brigid brought the relic to her lips and, very gently, kissed the bones of St. Valentine. Then she passed it across the table and Ailbe did the same, and finally so did Kennan, and Brigid noticed that as soon as he did he stopped shaking.
When he was finished Kennan put the bone back in the rosewood box and gave it Inus. Agnes pouted. "I wanted to kiss it too," she said. The man sitting on her left whispered something in her ear and she threw a napkin at him.
Inus watched all of them with an unreadable expression. "I trust there was a reason for that?" he said.
"Yes," was all Brigid said.
"I look forward to hearing about it. But now I think I should release everyone to get better acquainted with one another?"
Agnes stood up immediately and grabbed Brigid by the wrist, pulling her away even as she was in the midst of a bite of juicy lamb. "Hey—?" Brigid said.
"Dinner can wait, let's explore," said Agnes, pulling Brigid into an alcove lit by just enough reflected light to make out the macabrely comical audience of bones nearby.
"I'm not sure how much more of this place I really want to see," she said.
"I didn't mean explore the tomb, silly," Agnes said, putting Brigid's hand on her breasts. Testing, Brigid squeezed and felt the warm flesh through the silky fabric. Agnes groaned a little, so Brigid squeezed again, and then she pushed Agnes against the wall and cupped her in both hands, rolling her palms around. Agnes gasped. "Oh!" she said. "Do that again..."
From around the corner Brigid heard laughter, voices, and certain amorous noises. She paused. "Wait here a second," she said and stuck her head out. Scanning the crypt, she spotted Ailbe; he was sitting with Inus, talking and looking relaxed. He even smiled once. She looked left and right for Kennan and finally found him talking to two women in another alcove. He looked animated and his color was normal and he was no longer shaking. Brigid chewed her nails, lost in thought.
"Is everything okay?" Agnes said.
"You know...I think it is."
Brigid turned back. Agnes had her back pressed to the wall and had pulled down the straps of her dress to reveal the pink corselet underneath. She puckered her lips and said, "Kiss me."
Instead Brigid clapped her hand over Agnes' mouth, forced her head back and licked the side of her neck. Agnes squealed. Brigid bit her on the collarbone. The taste of succulent lamb was still in her mouth and it created the brief, hallucinogenic impression that she was gnawing the other woman's flesh. She pushed it away.
They pressed against each other in the dark, fabric sliding against fabric and hot skin touching here and there. Brigid's lips glided over Agnes' soft, perfumed skin and earth beneath them shifted as they leaned on and against each other's curves. They kissed and it was all moving tongues and hot breath and fluttery feelings in their chests.
Brigid pressed Agnes’ wrists against the wall, holding her there. "Don't move," she said, slithering down the front of her and kissing the spot where the tops of her stockings rolled around her legs. Agnes squirmed and Brigid held her wrists tighter. "I said don't move." She nibbled the girl's plump legs and slipped her tongue into the seam where her thighs met her hips. There were plenty of other noises coming from the next room now, including lots of giggles and moans, but Brigid ignored them all and concentrated instead on the pleasing animal scent of Agnes' wriggling form.
"Now I want you to lock those pretty little lips up tight for a few seconds," she said. "Ah, ah: I'm serious. If you be a good girl and don't make any noise you'll get a treat, but you have to be absolutely, positively, completely quiet until I count to...seven.
"Are you ready?" Agnes' head bounced up and down. Brigid cupped her hand around the girl's crotch. "Not a peep now," she said, and she began to rub.
Through the gauzy barrier of her panties Agnes was warm and dribbling wet. She felt like a hot little animal under the pressure of Brigid's palm. Someone around the corner cried out in surprise.
Brigid pulled Agnes' undergarments to the side and examined the little pink slit underneath. Pursing her lips, she blew on it and the girl's body jittered, but she didn't say anything. Nearby a woman was laughing under her breath.
She put one finger against Agnes and pressed for a second. The girl seemed to be holding her breath. A drop of wetness shone on the tip of Brigid's nail, so she licked it off. It tasted rich and human.
Now she traced the entire length of the girl's tiny, tight opening. Delicate flesh quivered and Brigid's pulse raced in her ears but Agnes, though a squirming mess, still hadn't broken. Brigid kissed her there, once. Echoing around the inside of the crypt was a voice she didn't know: "Oh, your hands are cold!"
And then another: "Give them a chance to warm up..."
She licked and tickled and tasted and Agnes grabbed the sides of Brigid's head, tangling her fingers in Brigid's hair, and she seemed to be shaking all over with the effort of keeping her voice pent-up inside her but, to Brigid's surprise, she still hadn't let out a peep.
The taste and the smell and the feel of wetness on her tongue and mouth made Brigid hungry. The chamber behind them was now filled with a symphony of growls and moans and cries. A breathless voice was repeating: "Oh yes...oh yes...ohhh, yes..."
"Seven," Brigid said, with one last lick. "All good girls go to—"
"Where?" The voice was right behind her. Brigid looked up and made a face at Inus.
"None of your business," she said. He touched her hair but she pushed his hand away.
"Don't be like that," he said. "I thought we got along so well last night?"
"You'd be surprised how much people can change. And how quickly." Brigid stood up, brushing off her dress.
"I'm still your host..." Inus said. Brigid chewed her nails for a second and then shrugged again.
"I suppose that's true. And you did help us...where is Ailbe?"
"Enjoying himself. You have been too, by the look of it. ...is something wrong with her?"
Brigid saw that Agnes was still squirming and red-faced with tears streaming down her cheeks.
"Oh, I didn't realize—Agnes, you can make noise now."
"Ohhhhhhhhhh yeah!" Agnes said, kicking her feet and pounding her palms on the crypt wall. A few skulls rattled on the stones. "That was SO hot. Oh God, I've got goose bumps!" She grabbed Brigid with one hand and Inus with the other. "Come on, let's have more fun!"
"I'm not in the mood to share," said Brigid. The sounds in the larger room had changed; the cries sounded wilder and more frenzied.
"Technically I'm the one sharing with you," Inus said. He was unbuttoning his fly. "But I do pride myself on my generosity."
Agnes dropped to her knees, reached in and pulled out Inus' cock, practically shoving the entire thing into her mouth in one go and making a little "Mmph!" noise. Inus grabbed a handful of her hair and started to work his hips back and forth. Brigid was peering around the corner again. The larger room was filled with huge, strange shadows all over the walls, making a mass of tangled limbs. The noise was frightening.
"I guess there's nothing to be done..." she said, and turned back. She settled on the cool stones behind Agnes and slid her arms around, grabbing a double handful of the girl's breasts again and fondling them, feeling the hot flesh sliding against her fingers while Agnes bobbed up and down on Inus’ cock, lips making a wet suction that, however briefly, blocked some of the racket from the rest of the party. Brigid kissed across the breadth of Agnes naked back, her teeth grazing the shoulder bones. Craning her head back she looked up at the collection of eyeless voyeurs grinning down at them. She winked.
Hours of hot, sweaty, naked, unseemly secrets passed in the hallowed corners of the tomb. Inus eventually passed out with his head pillowed by a bundle of his own clothes while Brigid cradled Agnes' naked body against hers and made soothing sounds. The younger woman had no head for wine and she'd drunk herself into a stupor. The larger tomb was still noisy, but the sound was subdued now, an unidentifiable wet sound, like tearing fabric. Something smelled.
“What’s that?” Agnes said.
"You were going to tell me about kissing the bones..." Agnes murmured.
Brigid sat up a little. "Oh that? It was an apology. Part of the family superstition, you see: the curse."
Agnes' head lolled. "What curse?"
"Bad things always happen to our family on Valentine's Day. Particularly every seven years, like this one. Ailbe thought this would be our one chance to get so close to a holy relic of St. Valentine that we could actually pick it up and hold it and maybe undo it, but...I don’t think it worked."
"I don't feel so good..."
"Poor lamb. Just rest."
"What's so bad that happens on Valentine's Day?" Agnes said.
"Not much, I guess. Our mother murdered our father on this day, though"
Agnes choked. "Oh. Oh my—"
"God? Yes, God had something to do with it. When Mom realized what she'd done, she killed herself too. But the whole thing wasn't really her fault; she just lost control. It happens to all of us sooner or later."
Brigid felt hot all over and her skin itched. Agnes seemed to be trying to move away but Brigid wrapped her limbs tighter around the girl.
"Ailbe killed someone once too: our youngest brother," she said. "He would have been 21 this year. But nobody blames Ailbe. It wasn’t really his fault either. I think he wishes someone would kill him one of these years. Do you think I ought to?"
"I...I think I'd better check on everyone else. Please let me go...".
"You don't want to see what's happening in there," Brigid said. "It's awful, really. Kennan and Ailbe made a real mess of it while we were in here. Boys will be boys. Hey, do you want to know a secret?" She licked Agnes' ear and then whispered into it: "I didn't really mean it when I kissed the saint's bones. The truth is, I like the curse a little. It's fun."
Agnes' heart was beating like a little trapped bird. Brigid could smell her sweat. The girl whimpered. "What's going to happen?" she said.
Brigid smiled. "Don't worry. You won't feel a thing."
Agnes had less than a second to scream, but it was enough to wake Inus. He sat up, rubbing his temples. "What the hell is that noise?" he said.
Brigid turned away from Agnes, wiping her mouth. "Oh good, you're up." She slinked over to him on all fours and, to stop him from getting up, sat on his lap, wrapping her bare legs around him and squeezing. He tried to blink away the grogginess and alcohol haze.
"What happened to you?" he said. "Are you...hurt?"
"I'm fine. I'm fucking fantastic. Now, do you wanted to hear the rest of the story about our family? It's an old story. When St. Valentine was beheaded? One of our ancestors was there to see it, and he mocked the Christian priest on the chopping block. All good fun in those days, you know, just part of the crowd, but Valentine must not have appreciated it. After they cut his head off, the head spoke, and it put a curse on that man and every one of his descendants. That's why we came to kiss his feet and ask for forgiveness. Do you want to know what the curse was?"
Something was dripping nearby, and there was a sound like a dog growling in its sleep as it dreamed. Inus seemed to be frozen. Brigid whispered in his ear:
"That every seven years, we would become wolves."
"Now isn't that a silly story?" Brigid stretched and yawned, showing her teeth.
"I'm hungry again. It sounds like Kennan and Ailbe were pretty greedy in there, but that's all right." She kissed him once with bloody lips. "I just want you all to myself."
Brigid felt sick. She wasn't alone: Ailbe had been in the bathroom for half an hour making retching sounds. He'd eaten too much.
Brigid knocked on the door. "You need help in there?"
"Let him be," said Kennan, but Brigid went in anyway. The smell was staggering. The toilet bowl was filled with a red mess. Ailbe was wiping his mouth on one of the hotel's monogrammed towels.
Brigid put a hand on his arm and he pushed it away. "Don't do that," she said. She slid her arms around him in a hug. He squirmed for a few seconds but she didn't let go and, gradually, he relaxed into it. He sniffled a couple times on her shoulder. "It's not your fault,” she said. “Remember what Mom used to say: Everyone loses it sometimes. You have bad years. It's the way it is."
"It's my fault there were so many people around."
"Yeah. But you were trying to help." She wiped a spot off his cheek, then one off of her shoulder where he'd lain. "It's that stupid saint's fault anyway."
"Maybe he didn't realize what he was doing either..." Ailbe said.
He started to follow her but after a second had to rush back to the toilet bowel. She sighed and shut the door.
Kennan sat by the window, drinking black coffee and working on his laptop. "He's right. We shouldn't have been there in the first place," he said. Brigid closed his screen when she passed.
"It was a good idea even if it didn't work."
"It was a terrible idea," Kennan said. "But we all went along with it so there's nothing else to say."
Brigid saw that he was gathering his bags. "Do you really have to go?" she said.
"I have an early flight. And I don't want to be here when they find what's in that crypt."
"I don't think we have to worry about that. The people Inus bribed probably don't want to have to answer any questions. I have a feeling the whole mess is just going to disappear under a pile of missing person’s reports."
"Even so. Anyway, you're mad at me, so that means my work here is done."
"I'm not that mad..."
For a second he looked as if he didn't know what to say, and then he surprised her by handing her a box wrapped in red paper. "Here: For your birthday. And to say thank you for the card."
Brigid turned the box over in her hand, speechless for a moment. "Oh Kennan...did you get me a Valentine's Day present?"
"Let's not call it that."
"Aren't you sweet? Oh, you can't leave now. Look, why don't you put off San Luis and come with me to New Zealand for a few days? Extended vacation."
"I really can't."
"Sure you can. Come on, we're all family, why don't we ever see each other?"
"I don't want to stop, I want to spend time with my brothers like normal people."
"We're not normal people."
"But we can still be a family." She dragged him back toward the couch and tried to grab the suitcase out of his hand. "You can't leave until I've opened my present, right? So I'm just not going to open it until you agree to stay."
"And then I'll fly out to see Maura and the twins can spend a week with their Aunt Brigid and I'll spoil them rotten and everything will be—"
"Maura doesn't want to see you. None of us want to see you, Brigid." Ailbe emerged from the bathroom. Brigid saw Kennan flinch, but Ailbe kept talking.
"Kennan doesn't want to spend time with you when he doesn't have to, and neither do I, and none of us want to spend time with each other either, and if Mom was still alive she wouldn't ever want to see any of us."
Brigid was speechless. She felt like she'd been punched in the stomach.
"And it's not because we don't love you," Ailbe said. "Of course we do. But we all just want to forget about this, and we can't do that when we see each other, and that’s why we don’t ever see each other." He sighed. "That's the truth."
First Brigid said nothing. Then she slapped him. When she wound up to do it again Kennan stopped her and, a second later, she fell into Ailbe's chest and started to cry.
Kennan touched her on the shoulder once, then shook Ailbe's hand, and then left the two of them alone in the suite, taking his bags. After a while the crying stopped and they sat on the couch, leaning on one another. Sniffling, Brigid said, "It's a shame, but I really think this whole thing has ruined Rome for me."
Ailbe nudged her. "What did Kennan give you?"
"Oh! I almost forgot." She picked up the box. It seemed heavy for its size. She tore the red paper off and fumbled with the lid. When she finally got it open she blinked for a few seconds, and then she laughed.
"Oh my. Look at that. He really is sweet, isn't he? In his way?" She held it out to Ailbe. "See? Just like the card."
Ailbe's breath caught in his throat. "Oh!" he said.