Heliconids always reminded Angie of faces painted with cam cream; two pairs of oval black wings, the front ones more elongated, the back ones more rounded, interrupted by narrow streaks of white and vermilion. Not that the description ‘black’ did them justice; the wings were formed of a plush, velvety ‘absence’ that threatened to suck you in and hide you away. Combined with the streaks they mimicked the interference pattern you’d use to conceal your face in the jungle, like you were Arnie eluding the Predator. And if there was one thing she understood these days, it was camouflage; she’d made a study of it, quite out of necessity of course, after she came back from the Ukraine.
‘Which one is it, exactly?’ asked Chris.
‘It’s Heliconius erato,’ she replied, matter-of-factly. ‘There are loads of Heliconids and they all look pretty much the same apart from the size and shape of the streaks.’
‘So how do you know it’s erato, rather than melpomene, for example?’
‘Melpomene has an extra streak on the underside,’ she responded instantly.
‘Erato was a Greek goddess, you know.’
‘Well not exactly,’ she corrected him tetchily, ‘Erato was only a demi-goddess; she was the muse of lyric poetry.’
‘Oh.’ Chris sounded a little deflated and quickly changed the subject. ‘And what’s the one just below that and to the left?’
She glanced down at the butterfly he indicated. It was slightly smaller than the Heliconid, with rounder wings. The ground colour was a rich cream, overlaid with an array of markings in charcoal, carmine and cobalt, notably at the wing edges which were adorned with intricate zigzags and tiny eyespots.
‘It’s Zerynthia polyxena, from France, I…’
‘And the one underneath that?’ he interrupted her. ‘I can just see one forewing, with some purple on it.’
She grinned, knowing full well the implications of his question.
‘It’s the first one I ever got; Sasakia charonda; a Japanese emperor.’
‘Well let’s have a look!’
She waited for a few seconds after the text had appeared in the chat window on her screen, just to tease him. He had paid well; cleared half the items from her Amazon wish list, so there was no way she was going to rip him off. She adjusted the webcam slightly, to make sure that when she knelt on the mattress she was positioned in the centre of the frame, then shrugged the loose, dragon-printed silk dressing gown off her shoulders, letting it fall down to her waist. She was wearing nothing underneath. Her skin held an even, flawless tan that gave it the appearance of latex. She was muscular too; more than you’d expect, unless you attended the same gym and had seen her boxing. The Japanese emperor came fully into view; a vivid splash of metallic purplish-green on black, just below her rib cage, a little off-centre to the right. She had chosen it to remind her of Yamashita-San, her first ever client.
She ran her elegantly manicured fingers lightly over her small rounded breasts, brushing her nipples, making them stand half-erect. It was all part of the show. Chris’s chat window had gone silent. She pictured him kneading his cock in a dingy room somewhere, half-way around the world. ‘Hopefully not as dingy as this garret,’ she mused, looking around her at the peeling, pale-yellow emulsion on the mould-spotted walls. Her little black dress and her tote bag hung on a single bent nail stuck in the back of a patched-up wooden door. An oversized teddy-bear, with a forlorn expression, sat atop a stack of worn, stained pillows at the other end of a cheap mattress which was strewn with a bewildering array of dildos and vibrators in shocking pink and electric blue. The whole scene was lit by a single harsh light bulb. ‘Vermin’ was an apt name for the place; just one of a dozen sleazy clubs that occupied the cheaply-converted railway sheds in the disused sidings on the east side of Namasnya Town. A little earlier she’d been pole-dancing for the punters several floors below and now she was up here on the cams.
There was still no response in the chat, so she checked her make-up in a cracked mirror that hung at an angle on the wall just behind her sleek flat-screened monitor. Her green-dyed hair was cut in a bob, gently spiked up with a little gel and with a long v-shaped fringe at the front that fell forwards between her hard, dark eyes as far as the bridge of her nose. Her temples and cheekbones were decorated with a geometric pattern of blusher in dark, medium and pale flesh tones; urban camouflage.
‘V e r y n i c e,’ came up in the chat window finally. Chris had spaced the letters wide for effect and added a smiley.
She pulled the gown open a little more so that he could see her pierced navel and half the wing of another Heliconid; tugged it along her thighs a few centimetres too, so that he could see the tops of her stockings. Then she looked brazenly right into the cam, winked and licked her lips.
‘The Darknet is full of rumours about you.’
She froze. This was a twist in the conversation she had not anticipated and though she doubted that it was indeed, ‘full,’ equally it was unlikely that there was nothing there at all.
‘What do you mean?’ she managed to type into the keyboard in front of her; churning inside, whilst doing her best to keep her outward composure sunny.
‘It’s taken me weeks to find you.’
‘You’ve been industrious then.’
‘I’d love you to see my Desert Eagles.’
‘You collect guns?’ She knew she should kill the link now but she didn’t, hoping that she could find out something more about those rumours.
‘I know where you live. Shall I come over?’
‘Do you?’ She was sure he didn’t; knew the Amazon shipping address she used was just the front for a very discreet, very secure forwarding service hundreds of kilometres away in Amsterdam. Nevertheless, his tone disturbed her.
‘I want to give you a butterfly of my own. Something you can point to and think “That one was from Chris.”‘
The import of what he had just said took a few seconds to sink in but when it did, she slammed the panic button on the little console by the keyboard and cut the channel stone dead.
Heart pounding, she staggered to her feet and pulled the dressing gown up around her. She went to her tote bag hanging on the door and felt for the handgun inside. It was nothing more than a reflex but the simple act of touching its cool solidity calmed her down. She left it there, opened the door and stepped out, locking it again behind her. She tiptoed in her stockinged feet along the rickety, splintered floorboards of the corridor, past the closed doors of another half-dozen rooms just like the one she had emerged from, until she got to the shared bathroom. Thankfully it was unoccupied. Inside she stripped quickly and stepped into the shower, treading carefully to avoid cutting her feet on any of the broken tiles. The water was cold, but she didn’t mind; it was a sticky, humid night. She just wanted to get that encounter out of her system, knock off and head home. She turned the tap full on so that she was drenched under the pressure. It was an invigorating, cleansing sensation.
Her fingertips drifted to the first of her butterfly tattoos; the Japanese emperor. It had almost become a ritual for her to touch them one by one when she was naked and as she did so, she whispered her own special mantra to herself. She felt the ridged, uneven skin beneath the design; the scar tissue from the wound it concealed. In her mind she saw the moment the motorbike had roared up, as she and Yamashita-San were leaving the exclusive Tokyo sushi-bar after some late night business. She saw too the helmeted assassin swinging his machine pistol around in their direction and relived the instant she had leapt, simultaneously knocking her employer to one side, shielding him and emptying her gun into the assailant.
Each time her fingers passed from one butterfly to the next, the accompanying scene came flooding back into her mind. Lastly she got to the three Heliconids and was transported back to the night she had acquired them all; that insane fire-fight with the Ukrainian security forces inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone. By rights she should be dead; but she wasn’t.
Finally feeling clean again, she stepped out of the shower, gathered up her things and padded naked along the corridor back to her room, slowly whispering her mantra as she walked:
‘Nine bullets, nine wounds, nine butterflies.’